Monday 7 May 2012
(Boaz Yakin, 2011)
More than a cut above the average Jason Statham vehicle, Safe works in it's own right as a gritty, 1970s-style action thriller. That it makes such good use of Statham's particular brand of glowering machismo and brutal fighting style only makes it a more satisfying genre experience.
Statham plays Luke Wright, a cage fighter who incurs the wrath of the Russian Mob. As a result, his wife is murdered and he is left alive, but told that anyone he get close to will be executed, that he must wander alone. Over a year later, and by now virtually a bum and on the brink of suicide, Luke sees an 11-year Chinese girl pursued through the New York Subway by the same Russian mobsters responsible for his wife's death. She is a maths genius with some important numbers locked within her head, and by saving her, Luke involves himself in a gang war between the Russians, corrupt New York cops and Chinese. Only, of course, as Luke begins to pummel and blast his way through opponents, we learn that he is far more than just another cage fighter.
Writer-director Boaz Yakin has some form in genre cinema, having written The Rookie, The Punisher (1989) and Prince of Persia. His directorial debut, the outstanding Fresh, was an interesting, enthralling spin on the crime genre. Aside from that work, he has mostly made dramas, and I think that Safe really benefits from his flexibility and experience away from the narrow confines of generic expectation.
His approach to some genre tropes is often interesting, and suggests the work of a filmmaker who understands his genre but is seeking to push against it's stylistic boundaries. He handles the exposition of the first act, for instance, with a series of interlocking, often elliptical flashbacks, which establish characters and move the plot along nicely. Later he stages two action scenes from within cars, so that all we can see of the gunmen outside is snatched, chaotic reflections in the rearview mirror (scenes reminiscent of Miss Bala). The final one-on-one confrontation is played as a direct snub to the expectations of this sort of film.
But Yakin also understands the appeal of Statham and puts it to use. His early slow-burn scenes work brilliantly, because we know exactly what will happen later. Then when it does happen, Yakin finds a happy medium between the coherence and stability of classic fight cinema and the modern love of hyperactive fast-cutting. These scenes are always clear - you can see exactly what Statham is doing - but they have the bruising impact audiences have been taught to expect since the Bourne films revolutionised the way action is shot too. Statham's performance is solid. He never gives much away beyond anger and a certain cold-hearted kick-ass relish for the fight at hand, but he manages the few gags he gets easily.
And yet for all its few jokes, Safe has more of an emotional kick than his work usually manages, due mostly to his relationship with the girl, which is gently played on both sides.
The surprising intensity of that emotional content is matched by the grit of the portrayal of New York City, here shown in the sort of street-level crime story more common in the 1970s. There are car chases along its avenues, massive gun battles in its streets and hotels (a casino shootout recalls and perhaps betters Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon), and fistfights in its bars and subway cars. The City is a character here, refreshing in an era when Cleveland and Vancouver often stand in for Manhattan. Another slightly retro touch is Mark Mothersbaugh's terrific score, which apes and updates Lalo Schifrin's 1970s work to fabulous effect,
But really, this is a Statham vehicle, and as such it must work as a Statham vehicle; meaning that it should be ludicrous, over the top and full of fighting, explosions and general mayhem.
That it does all that and works on it's own terms too is a tribute to some fine work from writer-director Yakin. Lets hope it's not long before he decides to handle genre material again.