Judge Gordon Sullivan fought assassins the other day. When the game was over, he tried again.
Our review of Safe (1995) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published January 6th, 2015, is also available.
She has the code. He is the key.
Jason Statham is a machine. I don't really mean his well-muscled physique (which just about every filmmaker exploits with at least one shot of his open-shirted glory), but instead the fact that he's ridiculously consistent throughout his career. Though always capable of adopting different characters (no one would mistake his turn in Snatch with his characters in Crank or The Expendables), he always brings a masculine but not macho sensibility, a willingness to do violent stunts, and the ability to look threatening against any attacker. For some, that might leave the string of action flicks starring Statham a little stale: audiences know what to expect and they get it with little complaint. For me, though, a film like Safe recalls the glory days of 1980s action cinema, when not every Stallone or Arnold flick was a classic, but at least they were making films that offered popcorn-style entertainment. Safe (Blu-ray) won't win Statham any new fans, but it does give him a substantial role in a better-than-average thriller.
Facts of the Case
Luke Wright (Jason Statham) is a B-circuit MMA fighter who lets himself get pounded on to atone for his sins. When he accidently knocks an opponent down with the first punch, he runs afoul of the Russian mobsters who paid him to take a dive in the second. They kill his wife, but offer him a second chance: if he goes on the run and never talks to anyone, he can live. The second he forms an attachment to someone, that person will die. Meanwhile, a New York City gangster representing Chinese interests employs a little girl (Catherine Chan) from the mainland who has a mind like a computer to remember numbers like profits and losses (to not leave a paper trail). One day, she's given a number to memorize, but on the way to getting another number, she's kidnapped by the Russian. Luke witnesses the Russian's kidnapping attempts and helps her escape. Now he has to keep her safe.
I have to say, if you advertised this film as "a thriller from the director who brought you Uptown Girls and Remember the Titans," I don't think you'd have a full audience on the first day. Writer/director Boaz Yakin has been occupying the margins for Hollywood for over a decade since his debut, Fresh, and has mostly worked on big-budget studio fare like Remember the Titans or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (which he helped script). Safe though, establishes his action credentials beyond a doubt.
The first thing that stands out in Safe is the tight screenplay. Most films of this type (protect the girl!) would have the hero meeting his charge within the first five or ten minutes. Not so with Safe—by exploring the backstory of each character, he effectively puts off their meeting until the 30-minute mark. This helps to build tension, but more importantly gives Yokin a larger canvass to work with. He can tackle gangland politics, police/political corruption, the aftermath of 9/11, and a killer caper all in a single 95-minute film without anything feeling forced.
The other thing that really stands out is the violence in this film. I'm a jaded viewer of action flicks and enjoy the major and minor revolutions that occur as new directors and stars try to bring something new to the table. Safe doesn't revolutionize action cinema by any stretch, but it does bring a freshness to the violence that is often lacking in by-the-numbers action. Part of the freshness comes from the fact that one of the people put in danger is a little girl, one who is a well-developed character (at least by action standards). So, when the bullets and punches start flying around her, the audience is primed to feel those impacts more forcefully. Director Yakin also balances well between the more slowed-down "bullet ballet" style and the visceral impact of flicks like Crank. He doesn't go strictly for one or the other, so that some scenes are nothing like real-world fights, while others brutal and practical.
Safe (Blu-ray) supports the wonderful action scenes. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is a thing of beauty. Colors are well-saturated, detail is strong throughout, and black levels are consistent and deep. Even the lower budget of the CGI isn't treated too poorly. It's not perfect—black levels could be a shade more detailed, for instance—but it's a strong, watchable presentation. The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track is equally good. Dialogue is always clear and well-balanced. The action sequences have a lot of boom to them and make good use of the soundscape.
Extras kick off with a commentary featuring Yakin, who talks at great length about the project and how its various pieces came together. He's obviously proud of his baby, and that enjoyment is infectious as well as informative. There are also three featurettes that cover the film's production, spending a lot of time on the stunts and action, interviewing Yakin, Statham, and others involved in the project.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course no matter how beautiful Safe (Blu-ray) is, there are those who don't like Statham. That's fine, and there's nothing in this film that's going to change their mind. To be fair to the haters, his accent in this flick is a bit variable. Sometimes it sounds okay, like British-lite or a kind of indeterminate non-accent. Sometimes, though, there seems to have been some overdubbing (since usually we can't see his mouth in these scenes), and here the accent gets laid on thick. It's too American. It doesn't ruin the movie by any stretch, but with the clarity of this DTS-HD soundtrack, it's obvious in a few places.
It's easy to see where a lot of the plot in Safe comes from, if you know action flicks from the past couple of decades. However, don't let an unoriginal premise keep you from a solid action flick with above-average storytelling, pacing, and fight scenes. Safe (Blu-ray) does the film's audiovisual presentation justice, and the extras are sure to please fans. Definitely worth a rental for action admirers, and a must-own for fans of Statham.
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