New York Noir
To say that I am not a fan of Jason Statham is an understatement. With the exception of one film (the excellent The Bank Job), his “characters” are ugly, unfeeling thugs who exist only to present ugly, unfeeling thuggishness as somehow cool and appealing. The Crank movies — which I like a lot, too — at least present his thuggishness through a lens of grownups-only Looney Tunes cartoonery, and so serves other cinematic purposes (ie, sending up genre conventions).
But now there’s Safe, which stuns me to my toes by revealing itself to be a wholly remarkable film. Oh, for certain, it is nothing that those who crave the usual Statham experience — as seen in Death Race, the Transporter flicks, Killer Elite, etc — won’t love: it is brutally violent and features lots of inventive and bloody mayhem. But those of us who don’t mind a little — or a lot — of inventive and bloody mayhem as long as there’s something meatier accompanying it are in for a treat. For with just the slightest of alterations in emphasis, with just the smallest of sharply observed touches, writer-director Boaz Yakin has created something extraordinary: a viciously cynical dark fantasy that fashions a new mythos of post-9/11 New York unlike anything we’ve seen, a bleak but all too plausible world of organized crime finding a new footing with law-enforcement attention focused on terrorism… and a place in which the tiny slice of the NYPD left to fend with the Russian mob and the Chinese Triads is just one more gang vying for supremacy.
Please: Don’t show the kiddies this movie. The ferocious violence aside, it’s depressingly pessimistic. It’s endurable only if you take it as fantasy. It’s so authentically New York in its presentation — with fight sequences on subway trains and wrong-way car chases up East Side avenues — that its portrait of a city that has descended into another circle of hell might be mistaken for authentic as well.
The utter lack of sentimentality in a story ripe for it only adds to its conviction. Statham’s Luke Wright is an all-around badass who was once some sort of elite agent recruited into the NYPD after 9/11 but is now on the outs with that agency as well. (That famous Statham mockney accent is, astonishingly, gone, and he gets close enough to a generic American accent to be believable as a New Yorker.) He is in a very bad way as the film opens: he pissed off the Russians something fierce and is enduring a punishment that is ingeniously cruel and — as far as I know — original in its design to crush Luke’s humanity. I’ve barely seen Statham present anything close to human onscreen, and here he’s totally compelling in portraying a man who is suffering under his forced disconnect from everyone around him. One vividly memorable scene sees Luke extend the barest hand of kindness to a stranger because he apparently can’t bear not to, only for the gesture to backfire. It’s downright poignant… and it sets the main action of the story in motion, when Luke comes to the aid of 11-year-old Mei (Catherine Chan), who has become a pawn in the triangular war between the Russians, the Chinese, and the NYPD.
It sounds like a recipe for something supremely cheesy: Badass rescues little girl and learns the true meaning of Christmas, or something. Safe never becomes that. Partly because Mei is pretty badass herself. As a tool of her Chinese “uncle,” gang boss Han Jiao (James Hong: Kung Fu Panda 2, The Day the Earth Stood Still), for her amazing skill with numbers — very helpful to a criminal who doesn’t want to put any evidence of extortion and money laundering on hard drives — she is a canny operator who ends up being an able partner for Luke as they unravel Han’s plan for the Very Important Number Mei is holding in her head. (Newcomer Chan is refreshingly free of the usual child-actor preciousness while also never creating a sense of Mei as not a child but a small adult: she’s a real kid, but not an ordinary one.)
Cheese is avoided, too, by the subtle grand sweep of the story: it feels like it’s just barely scatching the surface of a new world we haven’t quite seen before, and so it’s got too much else going on to need to bother with cheap or easy sentiment — indeed, there’s no room for cheap or easy sentiment in this world. With Safe, it feels like all bets are off, and we can never be sure what unexpected turns it might take. One tiny aside early in the film that demonstrates swiftly and surely Luke’s own ambivalence about the violence he wreaks is extraordinary for how it weaves new threads into a tapestry that seemed to have no left room for expansion. Much as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol brought a new intimacy to action movies, so does Safe, in bringing a complex, thorny humanity to a genre that had forgotten it.