When a champion thoroughbred is great at running around the track, fans don’t complain that the horse always does the same thing. No one suggests that the filly should perhaps go in the opposite direction or complete a race on its hind legs.
So if Jason Statham’s character in “Safe” isn’t particularly distinguishable from the intense, violent men he plays in the “Transporter” or “Crank” movies, who cares? In an era where matinee idols like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon can be turned into action stars, Statham injects his films with the kind of old-school, tough-guy intensity that made Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson into international icons.
“Safe” winds up being a B-movie with A-movie credentials, and all the more entertaining for it. Boaz Yakin, whose work spans from feel-good hit “Remember the Titans” to gritty Sundance fave “Fresh” to the fluffy “Uptown Girls,” directs his own script, with Kevin Spacey and Lawrence Bender producing, Mark Mothersbaugh (of Wes-Anderson-via-Devo fame) scoring and Ann Roth (“The English Patient,” “Julie & Julia”) providing costumes.
But even with such tony credentials, “Safe” has no agenda beyond unleashing Statham’s character against an endless stream of gun-toting bad guys. Luke Wright (Statham) is a cage-match fighter who just put an opponent into a coma in a match where Luke was supposed to go down in the second round. Russian goons kill his pregnant wife and then inform Luke, who has no other friends or family, that they’ll murder anyone he even speaks to in the hopes that his loneliness will drive him to suicide.
Meanwhile, Chinese mobsters are using young Mei (Catherine Chan) for her extraordinary mathematical gifts. She can keep lots of numbers in her head, which allows the bosses to monitor their underlings without writing anything down, and she has a gift for committing lengthy strings of numbers to memory. When her keepers bring her to America to memorize a number chain of some significance, she becomes a target of those same Russian criminals — and, eventually, of the Chinese gangsters who would sooner kill her than let the Russians access her knowledge.
Luke sees Mei getting chased through the subways of New York by his own tormentors and takes it upon himself to be her guardian, even when she also becomes the target of a corrupt squad of NYPD cops who, as tends to be the case in movies like this, also have it out for Luke. It turns out that he was one of their number before telling internal affairs all about their more nefarious activities. (His police gig was post-9/11 undercover work, so secret that the Russians thought he’d been a garbage man.)
Yakin realizes that we’re not here for the plot (although that doesn’t excuse the weakness of the film’s eventual MacGuffin), and he and editor Frédéric Thoraval (“Taken”) keep the punches and the bullets flying. Luke and Mei barely get a moment to rest between confrontations with the villains, and neither does the audience, but “Safe” manages its action sequences in a way that leaves viewers feeling exhilarated rather than pooped when it’s all over.
Luke is the kind of superhuman dynamo of violence that has become Statham’s signature role, and while he doesn’t show us anything new here, he makes every moment count. The strong supporting cast, mostly there to provide exposition and/or get punched in the face, include veteran character actors Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon and James Hong.
One could argue that “Safe” is how the filmmakers are playing it, but if you already know that you like watching Statham do what Statham does, rest assured that he does plenty of it here.