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"SAFE"
(2012) (Jason Statham, Catherine Chan) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action: A former cop turned cage fighter goes out of his way to protect a young math prodigy from all of the bad guys who want the highly lucrative and memorized number that she has in her head.
PLOT:
Luke Wright (JASON STATHAM) was once a cop hired by Mayor Tramello (CHRIS SARANDON) to clean up the streets of New York in a covert but particularly violent fashion. But after he ratted out other cops, much to their anger, he turned to professional cage fighting. But when a bout went wrong and Russian mobster Emile Docheski (SANDOR TECSY) lost a lot of money, the gangster has his son, Vassily (JOSEPH SIKORA), and other goons get revenge. Instead of killing him, however, they murdered his wife and warned that they'd similarly kill anyone he befriended in the future.

Now suicidal, Luke nearly jumps in front of a subway train but is distracted by the sight of 11-year-old Mei (CATHERINE CHAN) obviously trying to elude some Russian thugs. Sensing the need to protect her, he fights off the bad guys who wanted her for what's in her head. A math prodigy, she was kidnapped by men working for Chinese Triad leader Han Jiao (JAMES HONG) who distrusts any modern technology for keeping information safe. Accordingly, he had her memorize a long series of numbers and sent her to New York's Chinatown under the protection of Quan Chang (REGGIE LEE).

It seems everyone wants that number, including the Russians, the Chinese and New York's "finest," including Captain Wolf (ROBERT JOHN BURKE), Detective Lasky (MATT O'TOOLE) and Luke's former counterpart, Alex Rosen (ANSON MOUNT). Believing that she saved his life, Luke then does whatever he must to protect her, all while figuring out the significance of the numbers inside her head.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Considering that movies have been around for more than a century and certain performers' careers can span decades, one sometimes ponders who holds the records for certain things. You know, like the most screen kisses or most spoken words. Since smoking in movies is falling out of favor, the old record-holders are probably safe, but drinking is still up for grabs, as are records for dancing, sleeping, swearing and so on and so forth.

One that will likely always have newer "contestants" competing against old veterans is acts of violence. Rather than break that down into individual forms, we'll simply think of it as one overriding category of harmful contact with others via one's body or external objects. Certain martial artists come to mind, such as Bruce Lee or Jet Li, while the action stars of the 1980s -- including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis -- have to be up there in the mix.

My money is on more of a relative newcomer, a chap who hasn't reached the heights of cinematic popularity like those aforementioned stars, but who's now appeared in more than 20 films since his debut back in 1998's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." Yes, I'm referring to Jason Statham, a somewhat charismatic performer who's gone from supporting to lead character in a number of action flicks, most of which involve him injuring or killing others via all sorts of punching, kicking, shooting and more (with most of those physical stunts done by him).

That trend, not to mention the count of individual violent acts, continues in the simply titled "Safe." In it, the English actor (who's jettisoned most of his accent) plays a former cop turned cage fighter with various reasons to get violent. In the past, he was kicked out of the force for ratting out corruption. More recently, he got himself on the bad side of the Russian mob for winning a cage fight he was supposed to lose. And now he's come across a young girl (Catherine Chan) who needs protecting from all of them and more.

All of which means the punches, kicks and bullets are set to fly and boy do they ever in this 90-some minute action flick. As directed by Boaz Yakin from his own script, the film features so much violence one would need to watch it frame by frame at certain moments to note all of the mayhem. And if that's your filmmaking intention, you could do far worse than having Statham front and center.

But since the guy does seem to have greater acting skills lying somewhere behind his fists and feet, why not take advantage of that? Yakin somewhat goes that route by having the actor spend quieter moments with his young charge, which may remind some viewers with long memories of something similar between Jean Reno and young Natalie Portman in "The Professional."

Here, though, Luke doesn't train young Mei how to be a professional hit-kid. Instead, some paternal instinct kicks in out of nowhere and he steps into action, first on a subway train and then various other NYC locales.

While I didn't catch the film's temporal setting, the filmmakers clearly depict the Big Apple like it used to appear in the films of the 1970s, gritty, dingy and teaming with all sorts of criminal types and corrupt cops.

The unnecessarily convoluted plot features far too many of them - on three fronts - all of which means none of them stand out as much as they should (and we know the hero is only as good as the best villains he faces).

That said, it's always fun seeing James Hong in cartoon villain mode (or at least that's the latest thoughts I have associated with him), while Chris Sarandon has no problem chewing up the scenery - not to mention some occasionally really bad dialogue - like a voracious, cinematic termite.

Then again, they're all obviously only present to give Statham plenty of targets, and the film works best in such regards when it's in hand to hand mode. When the bullets really start flying in the second act, much of the actor's fighting charisma evaporates.

He does have a decent chemistry with young Chan, but I would have liked to have seen her character deploy more of her math skills and high IQ in helping them elude or thwart the bad guys (such as counting bullets fired to know when a gun is empty, calculating their odds of getting out of a certain mess, etc.).

Overall, the film has its share of decent moments, including a twist on the old and quite tired finale of most such action flicks. I just wish there had been more of those and the chance for Statham to do something more than just increase his overall tally of on-screen violent acts. "Safe" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed April 25, 2012 / Posted April 27, 2012


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