Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review of SAFE (2012)

- Rated R for strong violence throughout, and for language.
- Starring Jason Statham, Chris Sarandon, James Hong, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke
- Written and Directed by Boaz Yakin
- Running Time: 1hr 34min.

Yes, he's back!  Jason Statham IS Jason Statham IN Jason Statham!!!  Playing pretty much the same persona (grizzled, rough and tough) that he has for the past 10 years or so, Statham stars as an ex-MMA fighter who also happens to be an ex-cop, of course (he quit because he ratted a bunch of dirty cops out).  Also, because of a fight he didn't throw, the Russian mafia kill his wife and unborn child.  He spends the next year living as a bum on the street, building up rage.

There is another story as well.  A young Asian girl named Mei is a mathematical genius with a photographic memory.  She is kidnapped by the Yakuza (or something similar), brought to New York City and forced to crack codes and stuff.  When a deal between the Yakuza and the Russian Mafia goes wrong, Mei is caught in the middle.  She runs away and both criminal organizations are after her, as well as the corrupt police.  Meanwhile, Statham is feeling so down in the dumps that he decides to end his life by throwing himself in front of a subway train.  But just before he is about to do so, he sees some thugs chasing after Mei.  Seeing this gives him the feeling that he might have some sort of purpose, and dedicates the rest of the movie protecting her by stomping on and shooting anyone who is a threat to Mei.

Nothing original here.  But that's not necessarily what I look for in an action film.  I want it to be bad ass, well directed, and to give me an adrenaline rush.  And on those terms, this film more than succeeds.  It was nice to see the movie taking it's time introducing the two leads (about half an hour).  The first shot of the movie shows Mei walking in the subway, only to turn around to see an unfocused figure appear behind her.  Then we get flashbacks leading up to that first shot, this time shown from Statham's perspective.  That was a nice touch and a creative way to engage the viewer.

The movie does have lots of action, but it is a little more than that.  It does have the relationship between Statham and Mei. It's a touching one, just don't expect it to be as the same level as Luc Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL.  But it works nonetheless.  Once Statham and Mei cross paths, the action is nearly non-stop.  Yes, we do get to see the shave-headed stud break bones with his bare hands, but there are also countless shoot outs that are well crafted.  Occasionally, director Yakin does use the shaky cam technique, but when he does he also doesn't cut the footage up.  He uses longer takes than the average action flick.  And he also was creative when he planed the sequences.  Example: During a car chase, the camera is behind Statham as he drives and we're seeing what he's seeing.  Then the camera zooms in on the rear view mirror and we see the bad guys behind them.  It goes back and forth for about 45 seconds, giving a different kind of style than the average cut-up generic garbage. 

Jason Statham is playing a role that he could do in his sleep, but his energy seems to be a bit higher this time around.  It seems fresher.  His character has a little bit of a soft spot this time.  But only when dealing with Mei, because when he's kicking ass, he is even more ruthless than his TRANSPORTER character.  Early on, when he knocks out a half dozen baddies, he picks up a gun and points it at the last guy.  The thug winces, obviously giving up.  Then, in front of several innocent bystanders, Statham shoots him point blank in the face.  I wasn't expecting that, but it certainly raised the stakes in the action department.  This is DIE HARD 2 level violence!  And that's a good thing!

The supporting cast is decent.  Chris Sarandon (that's Prince Humperdink from THE PRINCESS BRIDE) seems to be having fun as a crooked politician, James Hong (Lo-Pan from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) is even better as the leader of the Asian mafia.  Catherine Chan does a nice little job as Mei.  She's cute, not precocious, and has a tad of attitude.  She's convincing, but no one is going to accuse her of being the next Dakota Fanning.

Writer/Director Boaz Yakin (REMEMBER THE TITANS, UPTOWN GIRLS) would seem an odd choice to be at the helm of this violent actioner, but only if you overlooked the fact that his first film was the gritty crime thriller FRESH, which was also about a young kid mixed up with some hoodlums.  Instead of having just your average dumb action filmmaker throwing mindless action at the audience, Yakin at least attempts to give you endearing characters to root for.  It's smarter than your average entry in the genre.  I even found some of the cliched lines to be hilarious (which I think were meant to be).  After nearly half the movie of Statham fighting off tons of assholes, he savors the bite of a submarine sandwich.  A character asks him how he could eat at a time like this, and he replies: "I've been in restaurants all night and all I've been served was lead".  YES!  What a great line!  Something that Bruce Willis would have said back in 1991!  The climax is very satisfying.  It's built up in a way that you expect it to go one way, but then ends completely different.  I got a kick out that. 

I'm a little upset that this isn't doing better in the Box Ofiice when THE TRANSPORTER films (even the atrocious third one) did solid business.  This is far superior.  It's still cheesy action.  The kind of movie that me and my brother would have went nuts for back when we were 14.  It's a Segal movie, but with better acting and a smarter script.  It's not an art house film.  It's a kick ass ride.  Action fans will not be disappointed.  This isn't a game changer by any means.  It's not realistic at all, but that's not what I wanted.  I wanted a kick ass movie... and I got one.

*** (out of ****)

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