Friday Film: Safe

Welcome to Friday Film Club. This year, I’ll be watching a movie I’ve never seen before and that, in most cases, is outside my comfort zone, and talking about it here every week. There’s no internal prejudice here, no bias towards one genre over another, just you, me, the movie and the words. Activate the Analyzatron 5000!

First off, we have Safe, from 2012, starring Jason Statham. He’s an endlessly, mechanically professional action star with physical ability and presence in spades, but for a long time Statham has had both a single character and a single facial expression; grim, forehead-glaring bringer of impossibly violent death, with occasional stop offs as the hetero life-partner of Barney in The Expendables.That trailer, whilst containing scenes from the film makes Safe look like exactly the same movie Statham has been making twice a year since his career took off.

That’s not what you get here. Or rather, it’s not just what you get here. Instead, Yakin takes the core of a resolutely old fashioned piece of crime fiction, cleans it up and drops it into a 21st century body. The end result is a little like watching Jimmy Cagney kickbox. It shouldn’t work as well as it does.

The extra wrinkles start with the core idea; Statham is Luke Wright (As an aside, I call his character in the Transporter movies Frank Transporter), an ex-cop turned cage fighter. As the movie opens, he throws a punch instead of a fight and puts his opponent in a coma. Even worse, in doing so he’s enraged the Russian mob boss who paid him to fix the fight and returns home to find his pregnant wife dead.

Normally, this would be when the Statham Rage would redden the screen and violence would ensure. Here, Wright returns home, walks into his wife’s room and then, numb, walks out. He kneels and puts his hands behind his head as the Russian mobsters inform him that they won’t kill him, just everyone he ever gets close to. Then they leave.

As an opening it works brilliantly. An actor who’s the embodiment of vengeance is completely hobbled, psychologically crippled in a way that means he can’t do the one thing we expect him to. It also neatly sets up the film’s most interesting sequences, which see Wright trying to survive on the streets of New York even as the Russians make good on their word. This isn’t the usual Statham character, the unstoppable bald-headed Australio-cockney doombringer. Instead this is a legitimately broken man, one who is a danger to everyone around him.

This is both the film’s biggest strength and weakness. It’s a strength because this is a man we’re used to seeing as little more than a cockney terminator reduced to a victim and that’s a fascinating, and courageous, dynamic for a movie like this to mine. It’s a weakness because it’s mined for all of ten minutes. There’s something genuinely interesting in Statham as an underdog and the script seems to run right up to it and turn away at the last minute. It reminded me of nothing more than Homefront, the 2013 Statham vehicle that flirted with actual emotional depth before falling back on ‘Reel 3: Jason hits people.’ Style plotting. There’s more to him as an actor, and a character, than we’ve seen and whilst these two movies don’t hit it, they at least start the journey towards it.

That willingness to use a stereotype as a foundation rather than a destination extends throughout the movie. Catherine Chan’s Mei, a child mathematics genius used as a living cypher/lie detector, balances the usual requirements of that role (brilliant, defenceless) with some welcome teeth. Mei and Wright are utterly broken, both crippled by irreparable tragedy and both leaning on each out of necessity as much as affection. One of the film’s best moments hangs a lantern on the idea of them being a family and has Wright expressly deny it. These are people who are together because they need to be, and that necessity over rides, and under writes, any affection that’s also present.

It’s most notably present in the plot though, where Yakin continually takes established tropes and does something new with them. Wright is initially portrayed as an ex-cop run off the force because of his principles but, as the movie goes on, we find out the truth; he was a government-trained ‘cleaner’ sent into New York as part of an initiative to shore up law enforcement following 9/11. He murdered countless criminals and his disgust at that led in turn to him turning on his colleagues and the self-imposed bloody knuckled penance of his previous life. It’s a neat twist on an established character type, and one the film uses to sit the always slightly implausible Statham in a plausible context. He plays the Russians, the Chinese and the corrupt elements of the NYPD against one another with consummate ease not just because he’s near suicidal but because he’s an apex predator from a much bigger food chain. Structurally it’s great but the character suffers a little bit as a result. The Wright that we saw at the start of the movie, a man with nothing left to live for bar obstinance, is not the Wright the movie closes with. It’s necessary character growth certainly, there’s rarely any other kind, but it does make the film seem a touch hump backed. Yakin flirts with Wright’s emotional instability, having him get the shakes or vomit after a particularly bone crunching fight scene but it’s never for long and never directly referred to. The broken, dangerous man becomes the dangerous man around an hour in and never really looks back. He should. It’s always more interesting when he does.

It’s a real shame, especially as it’s the only blow the movie pulls. Yakin’s script has some excellent twists to it, as Wright plays each side off against one another. There’s never any sense that he’s a hero, just someone doing the right thing for once, and that gives a lot of his later scenes with Captain Wolf, his corrupt former colleague played Robert John Burke, a real spark. Statham excels at this sort of role and Yakin lets his lead off the chain physically even as he reins him in psychologically. The closing assault on the titular safe’s location is especially good, a burly, close quarters gun battle that’s nasty, brutish and short. What makes it interesting is how Yakin’s script combines old fashioned noir style double crosses with more contemporary action beats. There’s at least one overt call out to the Bourne movies here, but the film’s tone owes a lot more to the hard bitten crime of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Wright is a noir protagonist, neither good nor bad, just trying to survive. The only difference is he can, and does, get far more creatively violent than his predecessors.

That difference, and the refusal to take the easy route, really comes to a head in the character of Alex. Played by the excellent Anson Mount, Alex is a cleaner just like Wright, and, just like Wright, is an impossibly dangerous man. The film teases a closing duel between the two for much of its final third and makes it clear that even Wright thinks he has no chance of leaving the fight alive. He shows up anyway, he and Alex face off and…

Mei shoots Alex and Wright finishes him off.

It’s a beautiful piece of wrong footery, convincing the audience that the traditional ‘two men punching on a bridge’ ending is imminent and then swapping it out for something completely different. It also neatly vindicates Wright’s decision to save Mei earlier in the film, and re-establishes their unusual, non-familial bond. These are two complete outsiders who know they can only rely on each other. They wipe each other’s slates clean and that trust leads into the final scene of the movie. New York is still corrupt, they still have almost no money and their lives are  dependent on no one being stupid enough to try and kill them. They’re safe, but they’re safe within boundaries. It’s an unusual, downbeat ending for an unusual film, but it lands just as effectively as everything that came before it.

Safe is still a Jason Statham movie. There’s still casual brutality, creative use of martial arts and a man being used as a bullet proof vest. However, it has a sense of tone and atmosphere that marks it out as something very different. Statham seems to be trying to become something more than a generic tough guy, based on this, Redemption and Homefront. I hope he succeeds. But let’s face it, none of us will dare tell him if he doesn’t.

Safe is available on DVD, blu ray and on demand services now.

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