Monday, May 21, 2012


The energetic Jason Statham action thriller “Safe” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) should assuage the appetite of his hardcore fan base.  Indeed, “Remember the Titans” director Boaz Yakin provides action, action, action, with a high body count, and some snappy dialogue.  Imagine “The Transporter” trilogy minus the hero’s fast car packed with gadgets and you’ll have a good idea what to expect from this swiftly-paced, no-holds-barred, shoot’em up about a tough-as-nails, ex-NYPD detective who becomes a guardian angel for an adolescent Chinese girl on the lam from both the Triads and the Russian mafia.  Mind you, as surefire as “Safe” is, it doesn’t surpass Statham’s previous epic “Killer Elite” with Robert De Niro and Clive Owen.  Nevertheless, “Safe” tops last years’ second-rate “The Mechanic.”  Statham delivers his usual poetry in motion performance.  The violence-prone villains qualify as a tenacious horde that keep our resourceful protagonist dodging fists, feet, and bullets.  When he isn’t clashing with either armed and dangerous Asian gunmen or Russian mobsters, he is tangling with corrupt NYPD officers who are every bit as lethal.  The chemistry between the older Statham and newcomer Catherine Chan is palatable.  She is the equivalent of a walking, talking abacus that the Asian mob relies on because nobody can hack her into her phenomenal memory.  Yakin is no stranger to shoot’em up sagas; he penned the Clint Eastwood police procedural “The Rookie” (1990) with Charlie Sheen as well as the first “Punisher” movie with Dolph Lundgren.  Audiences should recognize Asian heavy James Hong who has been playing bad guys since he was cast as a Communist soldier in the John Wayne opus “Blood Alley” back in 1955.  “RoboCop 3” actor Robert John Burke makes an unforgettable impression as a flinty-eyed NYPD police captain who has little tolerance for incompetence.  Hong and Burke make memorable villains.

When we meet Luke Wright (Jason Statham of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”) for the first time, he is down on his luck.  Initially, Luke was a resourceful NYPD cop that Mayor Tremello (Chris Sarandon of “Dog Day Afternoon”) hired after 9/11 to eliminate suspected fanatics plotting subsequent acts of terrorism.  After he broke a corruption scandal that incriminated many of his colleagues, Luke quit the force and took up mixed-martial arts cage-fighting in New Jersey. When Luke refuses to take a fall in a rigged match (think Bruce Willis in “Pulp Fiction”), Russian mobster Emile Docheski (Sandor Tecsy) sends his obnoxious son Vassily (Joseph Sikora) to kill Luke’s wife.  Worse, not only does Vassily tell Luke the Russians will always have their eye on him, but he also vows to kill anybody with whom Luke forms a relationship.  Luke vanishes into the Big Apple and spends the night at a homeless shelter.  He encounters a stranger who wants his shoes.  The next morning when Luke awakens, he notices that the man that he gave his shoes is dead.   

In most crime thrillers of this variety, the brawny hero exacts immediate revenge, but Luke is so stunned he does nothing.  Later, Luke heads to a Brooklyn subway station where he contemplates suicide.  A small, 11-year old Asian girl, Mei (adorable newcomer Catherine Chan), distracts him momentarily as he is about to jump as do the same Russian Mafia gangsters who murdered his wife.  Luke watches as Mei and the ruffians board the train.  He changes his mind and leaps aboard the subway as it departs.  Meanwhile, the thugs find Mei, but Luke arrives not long afterward.  Extreme close-quarters combat ensues with our agile hero displaying his considerable prowess.  Naturally, Luke leaves the armed Russians sprawled on the floor with little wear and tear to himself. 

Writer and director Boaz Yakin does a good job of establishing the predicament early before he flashes back to how Luke and Mei wound up in their respective corners.  In faraway China, the naive Mei disputed the solution to a mathematics equation scrawled on the chalk board.  Basically, Mei makes her teacher appear idiotic in front of the entire class, and this audacious behavior lands her in the principal’s office.  As we learn, Mei is an extraordinarily gifted urchin with a photographic memory.  She can memorize numbers with a mere glance.  Furthermore, she becomes an incredible repository of statistics for the murderous Triads and their profitable criminal endeavors in New York City.  Mei’s father abandoned her in China, and she hasn’t seen her mother.  After the classroom incident, Mei finds herself employed by notorious Han Jiao (James Hong of “Chinatown”) who exploits her as a human calculator.  Han neither trusts computers nor the trail that they leave behind.  Instead, he wants his cute little female prodigy to remember everything and maintain a database for his operations.  Of course, Uncle Han—as he likes to call himself in her presence—uses Mei’s mother in China as a bargaining chip.  Earlier, we’re told that Mei’s father abandoned her, while she hasn’t seen her mother in ages. If Mei steps out of line, Uncle Han threatens to kill her mother.  After watching how the Triads use coercion to keep their people in line, One day Mei gives Uncle Han’s American right-hand man Quan Chang (Reggie Lee of “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) the slip, but the Russians nab her.   Emile Docheski insists Mei cough up a huge random number that Han has made her memorize, but the wily little gal gives the Russians the slip, too. Meanwhile, NYPD Captain Wolf and his squad of corrupt, trigger-happy cops want a piece of the action as the villains scour Manhattan in search of Mei and her new guardian angel.

The virile, sympathetic, English-born Statham is as close as 21st century action-craving audiences can get to 20th century icons like either Burt Reynolds or Jean Claude Van Damme.  Although his physical appearance rarely changes in his action movies, Statham tries to vary the characters that he portrays.  Luke is probably Statham’s most vulnerable character.  When Yakin isn’t staging some terrific shoot-outs and plunging our hero and heroine into one tense scene after another, he provides a surprise or two that you don’t often see in the typical Statham saga.   

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