Luke Wright (Jason Statham) brings pain. When first you see him, the camera starts on his back, frighteningly muscled, then pulls back to show he’s in a cage, poised to pummel his poor sap of an opponent. The crowd noise expands and then, the scene cuts. A woman is pummeling Luke. The camera pulls back to show they’re in a hospital room, where her husband—that poor sap of an opponent—now lies broken. Luke’s face suggests remorse. Cut again, to Luke, mad. The camera pulls back to show he’s in a casino, accosting his manager. It’s his fault that Luke took out the poor sap with a single blow. And so Luke brings some more same pain.
It’s not that Luke wants to bring it. But he’s righteous. And in Safe, that means he’ll be deploying his special skill set again and again, schooling the bajillion bad guys who come his way. It also means he suffers his own pain—the murdered family, the Russian mafia vendetta, the former NYPD colleagues who hate him for exposing their corruption—all by way of leading him to homelessness, drinking, and (of course!) thoughts of suicide. Just when he’s about to step off the platform at DeKalb Avenue, he’s saved, by the specter of 11-year-old Mei (Catherine Chan), hiding behind pillars and pursued by… the Russian mafia guys!
Of course Luke has no idea how his past, and now his immediate future, are intertwined with Mei’s. You do know, though, because you’ve seen her story cut into his throughout the movie’s first 10 minutes. Back and forth, back and forth, the film edits on beat: she’s a prodigy who can store huge numbers in her head, kidnapped from China to Chinatown by triad boss Han Jiao (the wonderful James Hong). She’s grabbed, the film cuts to the cage fight. He contemplates his trouble with the Russians, she’s framed behind an abacus, the bars suggesting… well, you know. Han Jiao threatens her sick mother’s life, the scene cuts to Luke driving fast, en route to finding his wife, dead. He’s on a downtown sidewalk, she’s on a sidewalk in Chinatown. Etc.
You also know, because it’s a Jason Statham movie, that when they do meet, he’ll be protecting her from a passel of bad guys, including Han Jiao and his odious number two, Chang (Reggie Lee), the triads’ mortal enemies, the Russians—blustery dad Emile (Sándor Técsy), idiot son Vassily (Joseph Sikora)—and oh yes, the NYPD, a sometimes hard-ass and sometimes hapless crew headed by Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke, his rugged face used to brilliant closeup effects here). No matter that Luke’s been out of the game for a few months: he knows everyone, knows how Han Jiao is using Mei (to store information, without “electronic trails”), and also knows pretty much right away what the number she’s memorized means, namely, a combination to a safe (and yes! the film’s title is multivalent).
It’s helpful that Mei is less sweet than resentful, that she holds her own with Luke. After she tells him her story so far, she gazes at him steadily, more accusatory than grateful: “Now you know everything,” she says. “Happiness for you?” In turn, he treats her like a person more than the usual movie kid, at least when they pause for conversations. They spend most of their time—together and apart, for she will be kidnapped again and he will save her, again (as she will also save him, again)—engaged in high-octane crises. She’s pretty good and running, but he is excellent at running—as well as crashing, driving, flipping, kicking, shooting, and bone-breaking.
Luke is a standard Statham character, in other words, developing by physical action and fast cuts rather than emotional expressions in long takes (when Luke does take a moment to tear up, he looks like he’s pretending). And, though it’s easy to dismiss such characterization as superficial or stereotypical, Statham does it exceedingly well. As Safe slams around from scene to scene, propelling conflicts and showing connections by setting one shot against another, Luke maintains a certain charismatic gravity, less serious than alternately exasperated, shrewd, and bemused (Stratham does the all-purpose scrunch-face as well as Bruce Willis did in the olden days). As Mei begins to see in Luke a comrade, someone who can keep up with her, he sees in her a reason for being, or, as he phrases it, “life.”
Yeah, yeah. But that’s not the point of Safe. The point is pain, precisely performed, exactly edited. As Luke brings it, incessantly and intently, it doesn’t matter why. It only matters how. And how often.