Man, they were so close.
Safe could have been tremendous. It carries the hard edge of 1970s cop movies: all dirty streets and venal corruption without the slightest hint of daylight to give us any hope. It stars Jason Statham, who can kill a man with a salad fork like no one else on the planet, and boasts a director in Boaz Yakin who can invest ordinary set-ups with something perversely beautiful. It sets the stage for the best cop drama since Heat… and ultimately proves unable to meet those expectations. We can no longer accept a run-of-the-mill actioner after it shows us what it has then squanders that potential inch by agonizing inch. We’re left with something more than we expected, but a lot less than we were promised.
Yakin starts with a number of assets in his corner: a variation on the Yojimbo formula set in modern New York, only with three warring parties instead of two. The Russian mob sits on one side of the triangle, the Chinese triads on another, and the unspeakably compromised NYPD on the third. Then the film drops an adorable little Chinese savant (Catherine Chan) in the middle and gives her a super-secret code that they all desperately need. Insert Statham’s supreme ultimate bad ass – his bad assery goes without saying, of course – and watch the mayhem multiply.
It works on the most basic levels, since Statham can do this shit in his sleep and the various swarthy thugs he dispatches are loathsome in the extreme. Yakin performs some amazing feats with matching cuts and camera angles to put some fire in the visuals – his use of rearview mirrors approaches Spielberg’s for inventiveness – while the stunts contain an appreciable amount of harsh imagination. For a low-brow beatdown, you could do a lot worse… especially when old pros like Chris Sarandon and James “Lopan” Hong show up as the villains.
Safe, however, has a lot more going on than just a rumble in the Bronx, which ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword. It embraces the cynical realities of a compromised world: the fact that everyone has their price and that greed often proves stronger than love. The hero can’t win simply by vanquishing his foes; he needs to earn partial victories and decide how to navigate the threats that remain. Statham helps that with a surprising vulnerability at times, revealing more of his character’s wounded soul than expected. When Safe nails these moments, it becomes positively transcendent, and channels the spirit of 70s neo-noir with exquisite insight.
Unfortunately, those proclivities clash badly with the film’s pulpier instincts. The gritty underpinnings and messy complexities of reality periodically vanish, replaced by cartoonish superheroics. One scene, for instance, involves Statham trying to catch up to the girl on a subway. When the doors close, he clambers up the back and streaks effortlessly across the roof of the speeding train. The bad guys indulge in similar good-natured idiocy, such as taking an entire hotel hostage before shooting their way clear when the police arrive.
The script provides an explanation for such moments, but that doesn’t change the way they disrupt the carefully established mood. Had Safe embraced its sense of dumb fun more readily, they would have felt right at home. But after mining the rich possibilities of something greater, the repeated fallback to shut-up-and-shoot-some-bad-guys mode becomes an exercise in frustration.
Critics tend to disregard Statham’s work out of hand, an elitist position that belies his undeniable star power. He’s good at tough R-rated action films, the heir apparent to the likes of Charles Bronson who also took a beating at the hands of the press. Safe demonstrates the potential of his chosen idiom and the ways in which he was born for this particular form of mayhem. It deserves credit for aspiring to great things, a fact made all the more tragic when it fails to follow through like it should. Statham has an action masterpiece in him somewhere, and Yakin might just be the guy to deliver it. For now, however, we have to remain hopeful rather than reveling in an accomplishment that doesn’t quite materialize here.