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In the Good Hands of the Professional

MOVIE REVIEW
Safe (2012)

Safe-jason-statham-catherine-chan
John Baer/Lionsgate

“Safe,” the new film starring Jason Statham, refers to the hero’s protection of a child and to the whereabouts of a huge amount of money. But it could also describe the safe pair of hands that a movie starring Mr. Statham provides, with viewers secure in the knowledge that the film will meet their expectations, featuring a skilled and dependable protagonist who will punch, kick, shoot, stab, jump and/or drive his way through various predicaments and defeat the bad guys. While the outcome of “Safe” is never in doubt, the film puts a fresh spin on this action-hero film formula.

Mr. Statham plays Luke Wright, an ex-cop fallen on tough times after suffering a personal tragedy. He rescues a girl named Mei (Catherine Chan) from members of the Russian mafia and discovers that she has a gift for analyzing numbers. Mei’s talent is sought by the Russian mob, the Chinese triads and a group of corrupt New York cops; and they will stop at nothing to get her back from Luke. But Luke is no ordinary cop; and he will do anything to protect Mei from harm.

At first glance, “Safe” appears to simply take elements from “Mercury Rising” and “Léon: The Professional,” not to mention the earlier child-in-peril plot of “Transporter 2” — also starring Mr. Statham. But “Safe” isn’t focused solely on Mei’s ability to decipher patterns in numbers; it doesn’t just concern itself with Luke and Mei; and it’s not a glossy, colorful, over-the-top action film. Instead, “Safe” takes time to set up an intricate plot and introduce a number of strong supporting characters; and it opts for a brutal and gritty tone that ups the dramatic stakes.

There are some skillful approaches to familiar action scenes, such as the start of a car chase that is confined to the inside of a vehicle — using the sound of bullets and a shot moving into and out of a rear mirror to suggest the chaos outside — and the bad-guy-taunts-hero scene where a distant sound of a pneumatic drill increases in volume and makes the viewer feel Luke’s trauma. The plot also takes some surprising twists and turns, slyly subverting our action genre expectations.

As usual, Mr. Statham is an impressive action star. Whether caught up in fights or chases or simply striding down a hotel corridor in a suit, he dominates the frame as the muscular, taciturn Luke and exudes charisma. Ms. Chan as Mei is smart and tough without being overly cocky, making her a decent and likable presence in the violent, cynical world of crime depicted in the film. In addition, the supporting cast of gangsters, cops and politicians (embodied by familiar faces like James Hong, Robert John Burke and Chris Sarandon) add more character and wit to the proceedings.

Director Boaz Yakin keeps the plot moving at a fast pace, but he also spends a significant amount of time with both Luke and Mei at the start of the film to establish their characters, making the viewer care about what happens to them when the action kicks off. Like “The Bank Job” and “Killer Elite,” this feels like Mr. Statham is stepping outside the enjoyable but familiar action territory of the “Crank” and “Transporter” films to explore more character-driven stories. While “Safe” meets many genre expectations and should satisfy viewers looking for some traditional Statham heroics, it doesn’t play it completely safe. Instead, “Safe” tries to do some new things with its familiar scenario and the result is one of the star’s compelling films to date.

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