To mangle an old saw, there isn’t much to “Safe,” but what little there is, isn’t choice. Boaz Yakin made an impressive debut back in 1994 with the clever, twisty “Fresh,” but in this case he’s been content to concoct a slight, formulaic plot to serve as a mere springboard for Jason Statham to indulge in lots of martial-arts fights and gun battles. Despite all the mayhem, his movie plays it very safe indeed.
The set-up has Statham as Luke Wright, a cage fighter who puts a target on his back by winning a bout he was supposed to throw. Meanwhile Mei (Catherine Chan), an eleven-year old Chinese girl with a photographic memory, is brought to New York by crime lord Han (James Hong) to serve as the courier of a long list of mysterious numbers. She’s abducted by the Russian mob, but escapes. That leads to her being pursued by both the Chinese and Russian gangs, as well as by a squad of crooked cops headed by Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke).
This set-up is merely the pretext for the suicidal Wright to find redemption by becoming Mei’s protector. Before long he’s mowing down bad-guys, both Chinese and Russian, with fists, kicks and automatic weapons. He also figures out—without much trouble—what the numbers mean, and that takes him to a confrontation with the city’s corrupt mayor (Chris Sarandon) and his old comrade-in-undercover arms, hizzoner’s enforcer Alex (Anson Mount).
All of that sounds more complicated (and interesting) than it actually is, because the nefarious goings-on, which involve a safe full of cash and a computer diskette (very old school) containing embarrassing files, is just the pretext for all the chases (on foot and by car), hand-to-hand combat and blazing weaponry. The enormous body count is frankly ludicrous, given that the mayhem is happening in the heart of the city, but apart from the second-rate supposed bon mots that Yakin provides for Statham to toss off after disposing of some foe, it’s largely humor-free, until a joke short-circuits the one-on-one fans will be anticipating between Statham and Mount at the close. And the staging is off: the fight choreography by Chad Stahelski looks fine, as far as one can tell, but the jerky, hectic style favored by Yakin and cinematographer rarely allows one to see what’s going on clearly.
Even elsewhere the photography is on the murky side, and apart from the smooth turns by Sarandon, Burke and Hong, the acting tends toward the amateurish. Statham, as usual, is stone-faced and intense—which is probably for the best, since the few occasions on which he tries to show some emotion are pretty embarrassing. Little Chan, meanwhile, seems able to manage little besides reciting her lines.
There’s obviously a market for mindless action movies, but even by Statham standards—which are exceedingly low—“Safe” is an underachiever.