Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young kid is in possession of a highly valuable code that many would kill for. Stored safely in the kid’s mind, the only way to get the code is to capture the kid alive. But there’s one tough badass standing in everyone’s way, protecting and hiding the kid at every turn. Sound familiar? That’s more or less the plot of Safe. It’s also more or less the plot of the nearly forgotten 1998 film Mercury Rising. Trade out an NSA code for a code for the combination of a safe (ha, get it!) and a 9-year-old autistic boy for an 11-year-old Chinese girl and you basically have the same movie.
Mei (Catherine Chan) is a brilliant young student whose smarts and attitude give her teachers a bit of headache. But when the Chinese mob learns of her photographic memory, they bring her to Beijing and hold her ailing mother hostage to force her into working for them. Character actor extraordinaire James Hong stars as Han, the aging head of the mob, a man who despises computers and technology and anything that can leave a trail. He sends Mei to America to keep track of the financial data for his various fronts and illegal businesses. When Han comes to New York to close a huge deal, he asks Mei to memorize a very long number, a code for something he wants. But on the way to get the second half of the code, the Russian mob, who has heard of the girl’s importance and knowledge of the code, attacks and kidnaps Mei. When crooked cops raid the Russians’ hideout looking for her, the girl manages to escape, fleeing to the subway. There she catches the eye of Luke Wright (Jason Statham), a down on his luck ex-cop and MMA fighter who will become her sole source of safety and protection.
Don’t let the Mercury Rising comparison keep you away from Safe. The similarities are in plot only. Safe is a film that finds its place in the ever growing genre called “Jason Statham kicks everyone’s ass.” It’s a fine genre with enjoyable members like Death Race and the Transporter series. Safe stands just a little taller than most other entries due in large part to Stefan Czapsky’s interesting cinematography. Czapsky’s sets frames and camera movements that are a bit unusual for an action film, but which nonetheless work very well in conveying a sense of space and character movement. Czapsky employs a visual flair that elevates the film above other, similar action films.
But let’s not kid ourselves here, if you’re buying a ticket for Safe, you’re pretty much buying it for one reason: to watch Jason Statham kick some teeth in. So does Safe deliver on that front? The answer is a resounding yes. No one, save for Mei, is safe from his onslaught and Chinese, Russians, and corrupt cops are all pummeled and discarded with equal apathy. Perhaps one of the greatest scenes in this vein occurs in a Russian restaurant. Several Russian mobsters are enjoying dinner at a back table waiting for one of their own to arrive. Statham sidles up to the bar, downs a shot, kills the crook next to him with a fork then jumps over several patrons lunging toward the table in the back where he proceeds to kill everyone. It’s such an insane, balls-to-the-wall move that you almost have to laugh.
There is a rather incredible disregard for human life in Safe. Everyone is expendable, including extras who seem to die by the boatload. A good example of this occurs during a hotel shootout. As the Chinese gangsters are encouraging everyone to exit a hotel as quickly as possible, one of them says something like “if you don’t, we’ll kill you, like this,” and proceeds to shoot a middle-aged gentleman in the back. While some may find this distasteful, it’s gleefully over the top, giving the film a cartoony feel and a comic edge that all but screams “don’t take this too seriously!” The film is clearly meant to be a lot of fun and light on the emotional impact and it accomplishes both with aplomb.
Safe is a film that knows exactly what type of film it wants to be and it achieves that goal with style. One could easily nitpick some of the boneheaded and frankly nonsensical decisions that the various factions make, particularly the bizarre hotel scene where it seems as if the Chinese plan to hold an entire ballroom hostage for no apparent reason. But in the end, these are minor flaws that don’t distract from the enjoyment of the film. Safe is a well-filmed action flick that delivers plenty of bang for your buck.
The Upside: Jason Statham beats the shit out of a lot of people just like you would expect him to; the film looks great and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The Downside: Minor plot holes or illogical decisions by the bad guys,;no one’s winning any acting awards here.
On the Side: Safe is written and directed by Boaz Yakin, who also directed both Remember the Titans and Uptown Girls. Wha?