Writer-director Boaz Yakin ("Remember The Titans") believes, which is why his latest picture, the old-school-baiting "Safe," knows exactly where that pleasure center lies. The finest of the generic output of action stud Jason Statham, "Safe" is a take-no-prisoners crowd-pleasing asskicker, one that invests its familiar mob war trappings with the forward momentum that can only be provided by a filmmaker smart about genre, and an attitude that makes no apologies for political correctness, MPAA determinations, or a lack of a modern sensibility -- "Safe" could have been released by Cannon in 1990 and would have felt right at home. For being a "dopey action movie," "Safe" may be one of the most airtight, economical studio pictures of the year.
Statham plays Luke Wright, a former NYPD cop-turned-informant-turned-UFC-fighter (thus, muscles) who screws up the fix, putting an opponent in the hospital with one punch before the opportunity arises to take the fall. Having disgraced the badge and failed his organized crime compatriots, he returns home to find sleazy Russian skuzzballs have gotten to his wife first. It's not long before Luke hits the streets, now without a home, and unwelcomed by all his former employers.
When a kidnapping is botched, Mei hits the subways, where a despondent Luke seeks to end his life as a railway ink blot. Seeing this girl in major danger, and realizing he's Jason Statham: Man Of Iron Fists, he makes short work of these armed goons. It's the first extended brawl of the film, the action shot clearly and in a satisfying way, and it becomes an even more satisfying when Luke learns these are the same goons that murdered his wife. He absconds with the girl, thinking on the fly despite having no cash and no allies.
Of course Luke finds himself in the middle of a massive conspiracy involving the Mayor (Chris Sarandon, where have you been?). "You've got some big balls on you," the Mayor tells Luke as he's in the process of gaming the system. "It's a miracle that I can even walk," Luke shoots back with a mixture of action hero swagger. Of course this is a high tension situation, and of course our hero is going to prevail. And maybe there's a bit of tepid predictability to Luke finding the "will to live" because of this young girl. "Safe" isn't exactly for those who grit their teeth at the mere mention of Steven Seagal.
But in a figurative sense, "Safe" also pivots on the character of New York City, its chase sequences and fight scenes having a genuine sense of place. From the intersections to the subways to the ritzy hotel chains in midtown, the film makes use of the city's peculiar geography like no other action film in decades, perhaps since "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three." Perhaps the cue comes from composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who contributes a retro David Shire-doing-James Bond theme that rings true with the tempo of the city, the attitude of the concrete jungle. It's a musical reminder that the b-action movie can be done right. [B+]
"Safe" opens on Friday, April 27th.