Monday, 7 May 2012

The thinking person's nadkicker: "Safe"

If you think about it, it wasn't so very long ago - 2005, in fact - that Jason Statham, Britain's fastest-moving tough guy and foremost advert for male pattern baldness, had Guy Ritchie poking round inside his head, with the ill-fated Revolver. Fortunately, the movies realised said cranium had more potential - for nutting people, mainly, but also for outthinking bad men - than un film de Guy Ritchie would allow. (Consider Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes farragos, which require only the snarkier end of Robert Downey Jr.'s screen intelligence.) Yet Statham's subsequent European and American vehicles (the later Transporters, Death Race, the delirious Cranks) still seemed to be pitched at the level of (often bad) jokes, as though the only way anyone could enjoy a Jason Statham film would be if all the creatives involved were observed sending, as well as shooting, everything up.

Recent times have, however, seen a certain refinement (not to mention a substantial critical reassessment) of the Statham star persona, inspired by a pair of throwback tough-guy pictures: first 2010's The Mechanic, a no-nonsense (yet far smarter) remake of an old Charles Bronson timekiller, and now Safe, which operates along similar lines, but may be the first film to take Jason Statham entirely seriously. Boaz Yakin's film gives its leading man not a video-game avatar, but a character with a backstory to inhabit: he's Luke Wright, a bulky ex-cop reduced to cagefighting after ratting out a cabal of corrupt NYPD colleagues kept in place by an equally corrupt Mayor. It has the budget to surround him with actual New York City locations, rather than cheap Canadian knock-offs, and with a better calibre of adversary (James Hong, Chris Sarandon, the always underrated Robert John Burke) than the Bulgarian rent-a-heavies Luc Besson used to hire for Statham to kick in the 'nads. Safe even, in its opening stretch, affords its star a close-up as he sheds a tear upon learning his pregnant wife has been murdered by Russian goons - as though to suggest, hey, this guy isn't just a professional nadkicker: he can do emotions, too.

The plot, it has to be noted, is old news. We've seen this one played out before, most regularly back in the 1990s (site of most movie nostalgia these days, as the generation who grew up then begin to make their way in the world), with an array of Little Man Tates or otherwise gifted young kids who've witnessed Mob hits getting themselves in peril. Here, it's Mei (Catherine Chan, strikingly credible in this most generic of roles), a Chinese maths whizz who's found herself in the middle of a turf war between her uncle's heavies and the Russian mobsters who've bumped off Mrs. Wright. Our hero, homeless and stricken by grief, is contemplating suicide-by-subway train when he runs into her, and - perhaps seeing something of the child he lost when his wife died - becomes her unlikely protector. Depending on your viewpoint, this latter development will strike you as evidence of either the film's cynicism or its commercial savoir-faire, allowing The Stath to demonstrate nurturing instincts that may boost his audience beyond his core male fanbase, while doing Safe's prospects in the emergent Asian market precisely no harm whatsoever.

Whatever you conclude, you can't deny the respect with which Yakin, who made the smart, tough New York movie Fresh back in the day and appears to have been coasting ever since, has assembled what would ordinarily have been here-today-gone-tomorrow multiplex filler. Yakin smuggles dabs of local colour and atmosphere around the business the Statham hardcore have come to see; he commits to actual aesthetic choices during the fight scenes, rather than chopping them into a blur (of particular note: the decision to keep the camera in-car with the hero at key moments, showing us - in unbroken shots - ne'er-do-wells variously disappearing under the front bonnet or getting blown away in the rear-view mirrors); and he pulls off, with a low-key panache, the expected transition by which Statham gets out of his manky homeless duds and into a suit befitting an upwardly mobile movie star - though he allows Luke to retain his grotty, street-soiled trainers as an index of just how real he's keeping it.

The business between the hero, the cops and the mobsters is standard for the form, and Safe flags whenever it gets too caught up in it, lacking the deranged energy the Crank films had in their favour. What's unusual - and moving in the sense not normally applied to Jason Statham pictures - is the relationship between Luke and Mei: some assertion of decency within an otherwise rotten universe, and of humanity in a megaplex presently overrun by superheroes. It's a sign of just how assured (safe, if you will) a screen presence Statham has become that he can work through an entire sequence alone with the girl in an uptown hotel room without having to fend off any misinterpretations or untoward undercurrents. (As the venerable Scroobius Pip puts it, "Thou shalt not assume any male over the age of thirty who plays with a child who is not their own is a paedophile/Some people are just nice.") A little bit more than an efficient, effective star vehicle, then: perhaps because he hasn't quite mastered the American accent, Statham is here allowed to be the quietest, stillest (and most compelling) presence on screen - which makes it all the more explosive when he finally sticks a fork through somebody's neck, or elects to surf another hood's body during the drop from a third-floor window. 

Safe is on nationwide release.

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