Give it a year, or maybe just a month or two, and Safe is bound to be known as “that one with Jason Statham and the little girl.” Like any good action star, his formula hardly deviates between what he’s protecting and whose ass he’s kicking, and the vehicles all seem to blur together... even the above-average ones.
Generic title be damned, there’s a reason that writer-director Boaz Yakin’s film is called just that: in addition to Luke Wright’s (Statham) newfound imperative to protect Mei (Catherine Chan) from the Triads, the Russian mafia, and the corrupt cops of New York City, he’s looking to exploit the information she has -- a code that only the young math prodigy knows -- in order to break into not just one safe, but two, and effectively turn all three parties against one another.
I could blather on about all the plot that goes with it -- how Luke had upset the cops he once considered brothers, how the Russians have upset Luke by offing his wife, how Mei effectively brought her protector back from the brink of suicide by being in the wrong place at the right time -- but that hardly matters. Yakin devotes the first reel to establishing how their paths crossed and why they’re both wanted by the same groups of thugs, and from there he spares us much sentiment once the unlikely duo pairs up and then splits off again.
There’s something to be said for the excesses that follow. Safe barrels through cliché after cliché and hurdles from borough to borough with a welcome abandon for logic, morality, and mortality alike, making it something of a modern action rarity -- the first pure, unwinking, unashamed B-movie to come along in many a month. Between the steely hero, the seedy sets, Stefan Czapsky’s gritty camerawork, Mark Mothersbaugh’s old-school score, and the considerable body count, it feels like something that Eastwood cranked out in the ‘70s, closer in spirit to The Gauntlet than something like Gloria (and pretty undeniably similar to 1994's The Professional as well).
To its credit, Yakin’s script doesn’t tie itself strictly to a “protect the girl” hide-and-seek plot (a girl whom, it should be said, is bright within reason and not exhaustively precocious instead), making time for a trigger-happy mid-movie mini-heist before ending with an assassin showdown of sorts. In between are shootouts aplenty, not to mention a subway brawl and a wrong-way car chase through the streets of Manhattan, much of which Yakin (Uptown Girls, Remember the Titans) pulls off with surprising flair between the notably energetic sound design and some amusingly sustained shots early on.
Brazen one-liners are in no short supply as Statham takes on New York’s scummiest and effortlessly sells his physicality once more, and what’s more, he’s granted a bit of pre-pummel brooding here that The Transporter, The Mechanic, and the Crank films never made time for. He won’t have you in tears, but you will believe that he can shed a few of his own before bad guys ranging from James Hong to Robert John Burke to Chris Sarandon warn one another that his character is “a killer, but an honest one.” (Yakin even gives Luke a moment to puke between subway cars after dispatching a dozen thugs. It’s an odd, nice touch.)
He’s a refreshingly selfish anti-hero, even in spite of saving innocent children, and a stoic anchor amid all the carnage. When a group of henchmen rather foolishly draw attention to themselves by taking an entire hotel lobby hostage, it’s just one more reason why Luke isn’t a good guy -- he’s just the best bad guy around.