Jason Statham in Highly Charged, Metaphoric ‘Safe’

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – There is an underlying smokiness to the ultra-violent “Safe” that is worth exploring. By creating a triangle of doom between the Chinese mob (the Triads), the Russian mob and the corrupt New York City Police Department, it’s just a small leap to apply the same function between the countries they represent. Action star Jason Statham puts it all together.

There is a high body count and a lot of gunplay in this unusual thriller, which definitely has a post 9/11 vibe. The criminal mobs are reflected in the police “special units” within the department, and all three cooperate with each other to mostly work against each other. If that isn’t diplomacy in the age of terrorism, then it is back to metaphor class. It is also interesting to note that the outsider, portrayed by Jason Statham, becomes protective of a Chinese girl, which was a trend in adoptions here in these United States for a number of years. There is outrageous action, stunt work and bang-bang, but the film especially works exploring the background of its politics.

Statham is Luke, who is seen cage boxing in New Jersey as the film begins. His counterpart in China, an 11-year-old girl named Mei (Catherine Chan), is shown displaying genius level prowess at memorizing and solving complex math problems. Mei is kidnapped by the Triad, the Chinese mob in New York City, run by the ruthless Han Jiao (James Hong). Han recruits Mei as his personal human computer, keeping figures in her head for all his Chinatown businesses.

Jason Statham (Luke) Protects Catherine Chan (Mei) in ‘Safe’
Catherine Chan (Mei), Protected by Jason Statham (Luke) in ‘Safe’
Photo credit: John Baer for Lionsgate

Meanwhile, Luke is in trouble with the Russian mob and the police unit he used to work for, because he won a fight he was suppose to throw. His backstory comes to light, as he was the elite cop who spoke out against the corrupt unit. The Russians also know of a series of numbers that Mei has memorized for Han, which are random and out-of-sequence. The Russians kidnap the girl, but she manages to escape from them, and hooks up with Luke during a subway chase and fight. The two new allies must fend off three entities that are after them; the Triad, the Russians. and a NYC police force – teamed with the Mayor’s office – that normally would be protecting them.

The action is outrageous and sometimes too much, but all the sequences are handled in a stylish ballet style, and writer/director Boaz Yakin has a nice touch in framing unusual shots that create a noir atmosphere. There is something very innocent and intriguing in the girl, and in her plain reading lessons of mob policies. She is blankly heroic when teamed with Luke, almost as if she was a computer. She is in the middle of it all, and the young actress Catherine Chan portrays her with a strangeness that mixes well with her circumstance.

Keeping a child as its centerpiece, the story is not a standard thriller, and with its New York City setting and the Chinese and Russians involved, the geopolitical symbolism is hard not to miss. The special police unit that Luke worked on was a task force who searched for the crimes beyond the terrorist investigations after 9/11. Their control of the neighborhoods included being on the take with the crime syndicates, and Luke’s actions to quell it made him a marked man. He is the neutral force in the middle of the hurricane, while the Chinese emerge, the Russians compress and America (the NYC police department) wants a cut from all of it.

The violence is excessive to the point of the comic book variety, but there is enough quality kills and chop-socky fights to recommend not viewing it, if at all sensitive to that kind of screen action. The excess became part of the character of the pacing of the film, and part of the symbolism. When watching this kind of stuff, I always tend to drift toward the funerals of all the henchman and cops meeting their final reward. Ka-ching, goes the registers of the mortuaries.

Veteran Character Actor James Hong (Han Jiao) and Catherine Chan in ‘Safe’
Veteran Character Actor James Hong (Han Jiao) and Catherine Chan in ‘Safe’
Photo credit: John Baer for Lionsgate

And in that sense it does get a bit repetitive, until the final act, where it finds the bearings again and concludes in a satisfying way. Despite varying opinions about Statham’s acting style, he really knows how to grip a lead role and formulate it through that style. He is my favorite action guy working right now, and this film is begging for a sequel.

The big three – Russia, the USA and China – are certainly economic engines that influence the larger “world’ within their territorial syndicates. Those engines are determined to keep pumping out the money, woe to the place in time or country who cannot keep up. We all live in the mix of a potential action movie, and if anything does happens in the here and now, it would be neither make believe nor safe.

“Safe” opens everywhere on April 27th. Featuring Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, James Hong, Chris Sarandon and Robert John Burke. Written and directed by Boaz Yakin. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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