You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn’t judge a movie by its commercials. Take Safe for example. Its trailer shows Jason Statham running around with a little girl while Chinese and Russian gangsters exclaim things like, “That girl does not leave the city!” We learn that the aforementioned little girl has a very important sequence of numbers in her noggin. We learn that Statham’s character can kung fu his way out of a gunfight and that “the guy was the hardest cop once upon a time!” We laugh raucously and decide to avoid the flick like the plague.
The adverts don’t lie. Statham indeed plays a former police officer with super-human skills. His name is Luke Wright, and he just lost his wife over a fixed fight gone wrong. The man indeed rescues a twelve-year-old from the Triads, the Russian mob, and dirty cops. Her name is Mei (Catherine Chan), and a Chinese crime lord (James Hong) has used her eidetic memory to store a mysterious code. Outlandish ass-kicking indeed ensues, the sort that makes one ponder whether a guy can tone his pecks to the point of making them bulletproof. What the promo spots fail to convey are the film’s wit and creativity.
It’s all about execution, really. Consider the use of parallel editing to speed through the protagonists’ respective back stories. To avoid heavy exposition, Mei’s time with her Triad foster father (Reggie Lee) is shown rather than told, but it requires a sense of status quo to resonate. Luke’s tale proves more visceral, but its convoluted twists and turns make it difficult to follow, let alone believe. Side by side, however, the two threads provide just enough breaks for our suspension of disbelief to catch up so that, by the time our heroes meet, the building tension has us completely sucked in.
Safe also does a surprisingly good job balancing its cans of whoopass with colourful character beats, such as when our heroes try their luck in New York traffic. Luke’s nonchalance as he repeatedly runs over the same corrupt officer sets the tone. Then things turn to lunacy as he swerves the car against circulation. Though the resulting chase sequence features a respectable amount of spectacle, what elevates the material is Mei shouting, “Cars go the other way!” not with the desperation of a panicked child but the annoyance of an old soul who thinks the person next to her is an idiot.
By the same token, one might mistake Luke’s first kill for a classic action hero moment, what with the menacing close-up and glib one-liner, but the event is quickly undercut by his throwing up in between subway carts. Unlike Michael Bay or Gareth Evans, writer-director Boaz Yakin understands that violence bears its consequences. His characters, on the other hand, treat human life with shocking callousness, and the disconnect drives much of the movie’s humour.
Whether it’s having Mei point out the obvious to her cannon fodder supporting cast or showing Luke take a snack break instead of jumping straight into the next set piece (he’s had a long day, you know), Safe seems to delight in taking the piss out of the more idiosyncratic action tropes. This is not to say the film works as a full-on satire, seeing as it makes no attempt to deconstruct the genre. However, the final subversion, involving a macho duel between two martial arts experts, proves so clever I was tempted to buy another ticket just to watch it again.
You see, Safe isn’t just another stupid action flick. It’s a stupid action flick made by smart filmmakers. Why the producers chose to market it as a clichéd Statham vehicle and hide its irreverent charm escapes me. I don’t understand either their decision to present Mei as yet another prepubescent MacGuffin when her poker-faced pragmatism and stout refusal to play the damsel in distress make her such a unique character. As the young prodigy would say, “that’s bad business.”