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April 29, 2012

Jason Statham may only do one thing, but he does it very, very well. And in Safe, writer-director Boaz Yankin gives him plenty of room to do it. It’s not high cinema, but it’s got a decent story for a high-octane action film, and plenty of what Statham’s fans come for.

The movie also introduces Catherine Chan as Mei, whose last name isn’t given, but may well be the Mandarin translation of “MacGuffin”. A mathematically-precocious young girl, she was taken from her mother by the leader of a Triad gang (James Hong) in China and sent to be a human calculator for his nephew (Reggie Lee) in New York City.

Most recently, Mei has been told to memorize a long number and sent off to be given another one and further instructions. Along the way, she is kidnapped by a Russian gang led by a ruthless old man (Sándor Técsy) and his son (Joseph Sikora). And of course no gang war is complete without a corrupt police unit whose captain (Robert John Burke) is taking orders from the mayor (Chris Sarandon) playing both sides off of each other.

At which point, enter Luke Wright (Statham), who used to work under the corrupt captain until he ratted out his colleagues and ended up using his natural talents to get the tar beat out of him on the MMA circuit. That is, until he was supposed to take a dive against some kid with a glass jaw who couldn’t even take a single punch, which got the Russians — remember the Russians — all upset and they proceeded to kill everyone he talked to longer than it took to order a hot dog.

So when Luke sees Mei running away from some Russians through the subway station where he’s decided to end his torment, he decides to save her. And of course he ends up saving himself in the bargain.

This sounds like a lot, written out like this. It’s a testament to Yankin’s abilities that he communicates this all with marvelous economy. Instead of massive info-dumps — there are a few small ones — we get a handful of spare shots that let the images and action tell the story rather than the dialogue.

And this is just what Statham needs; in an emotive sense the man may it be able to act his way out of a paper bag, but he certainly can punch and grimace through it. Unfortunately, Chan isn’t really much better at emotions than Statham is, and she is by no means an action hero. Still, she’s cute and vulnerable, which is all the movie really asks of her; maybe her second role will be more impressive.

Other than that, everyone lives up to expectations. Hong and Lee are basically staples of this sort of story, whatever that may mean for the roles that Hollywood offers Asian actors. Sarandon could have been used more — when hasn’t he been good as a venal head honcho — but when you’ve got this many factions it’s better to strip down than to pad out.

But an action movie is built on action, and this one delivers in quantity on that count. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s possible anymore to make an action movie without chaotic editing. It’s worse here because Yankin’s hand-held camerawork follows the bodies, further disorienting the viewer in each short shot. And this is sort of a shame because you can tell he has some really interesting ideas; the shots where he uses a car’s side or rear-view mirrors are particularly well-done and give away his talent.

Still, I doubt most of Statham’s fans will really mind the chaos. He punches, kicks, shoots, and body-slams his way through an army of opponents, and each one only really takes a moment. If that moment is all you care about, chaotic editing doesn’t really hurt anything important.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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