You can learn a lot about someone from his or her favorite Jason Statham movie. For instance, if your pick is Crank (or, fucking hell, Crank 2), I know you don't really like Jason Statham movies that much. Those are built on a fun concept, and they have a few great ideas, but they're Mountain Dew commercials disguised as absurdist comedies disguised as action movies.
With his jutting brow and his sincere Cockney mutter, Statham works best when he's playing it straight. His best actual movie might be 2008's The Bank Job, but that's a heist caper with a troubling lack of face-kicking, so we can't really consider it a Jason Statham movie. For a long time my pick was 2005's Transporter 2, which had just the right balance of holy-shit badassery and self-aware lunacy. But now we have Safe, from 2012, a tough and economical and unpretentious action thriller that does everything a Jason Statham movie should do and does it with brutal, economical efficiency. And right now, as far as I'm concerned, it's the most satisfying thing he has ever done.
Safe has a fairly byzantine plot: A young Chinese math prodigy is on the run from Russian and Chinese gangs in New York for reasons she doesn't quite understand, with a shattered and depressed Statham protecting her because it's the only way he can possibly do any good in the world before he dies. But the plot doesn't feel complicated, because director Boaz Yakin keeps things moving confidently and briskly. Statham, we learn, is a former MMA fighter who incurred the wrath of the Russian mob by accidentally putting an opponent in a coma when he was supposed to be throwing a fight. (His character has a name, but come on, it's Jason Statham; these filmmakers shouldn't even bother.) The mobsters have murdered his wife, but they've decided not to kill him because, in a classic example of evil-movie-guy logic, they've decided it would be more of a punishment to kill anyone Statham ever makes friends with until he finally takes his own life. (As they leave his apartment: "If you stay here tomorrow, we will kill the landlady. Nice lady.") So he's homeless, wandering the streets, rudely walking away from anyone who remembers his cage-fighting career because he doesn't want these people to end up dead.
Meanwhile, the young Chinese girl Mei has been moved from her provincial hometown to a special Beijing school when everyone realizes that she's a math prodigy with a photographic memory, even though she insists that she doesn't even like math. In Beijing, she's attracted the attention of triads who need to use someone who can do quick equations and memorize columns of numbers. ("Computers are so annoying," says sleazy crime boss James Hong, who only ever plays sleazy crime bosses. "They leave trails that are easy to follow.") She ends up pressed into service in New York, forced to help Chinatown thugs extort local businesses, made to watch as her new surrogate father tortures and murders his bad earners.
New York, in the movie's reality, is an absolute hell of warring ethnic gangs and crooked cops, and when she memorizes a huge coded number, all of them are after her. And the movie fills in all this backstory by giving us an enviable rogues' gallery of evil motherfuckers, moving confidently between stories and timelines, never showing more than it has to. We never see the MMA fight that gets Statham in all that trouble, and we don't see his wife's body, either; we just see that forehead vein bulge when he sees what's happened.
There's a sense of inevitability to the movie, of course; we know these Statham and Mei are going to meet up, and that it's going to be on when that happens. The movie's first fight doesn't even come until half an hour in, and it's a total barnstormer: Statham rescuing Mei from a subway car full of Russian thugs by just coming out of nowhere and kicking the shit out of every last one of them.
From that moment, the movie is just a strung-together collection of chases and fight scenes, and they're all intense and hard-hitting and great. Statham fights a mob of Chinese hoodlums in a fancy restaurant, Frisbeeing a plate into one guy's head and then suplexing another through a table. Statham escapes from a crew of crooked cops by stealing a cop car, the camera staying inside the car as he backs over one cop and then switches into drive and hits him again. Statham suddenly reveals that he speaks Russian so that he can walk into a Russian-mobster hangout and issue badass one-liners. ("I never know what to say in these moments." "What moments?" "The ones before I kill someone.") Throughout, we learn all these little bits and pieces about his past, though we never quite learn why a guy with a British accent was ever a New York cop. (I like that; it reminds me of all the times we just had to accept that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austrian accent and all, was a Southern small-town sheriff.)
Boaz Yakin made his directorial debut with Fresh, a great low-budget 1994 crime movie, but his career since then has been a kick to the face of auteur theory: A Price Above Rubies! Uptown Girls! Remember the Titans! But Safe doesn't play like the work of a directionless studio hack. The story has no real surprises, but there's an energy in the way it tells its story. It feels like a New York movie, even though it was partly filmed in Philadelphia, and it's peripheral characters are all grim, hard-faced bad motherfuckers. You know none of them is going to beat Statham, but they all seem like worthy foes. And while Statham does get a few funny lines in, and the final fight nicely subverts the whole final-fight idea, Yakin never plays this stuff for laughs.
As for Statham, he's great. He has to carry the movie himself, since he doesn't have a villain as colorful as, say, James Franco in last year's pretty-good Homefront. His primary costar is a tough-but-scared little kid, and even though Catherine Chan does just fine as Mei, nobody expects her to do any dramatic heavy lifting. Statham nicely underplays everything, somehow coming across as both confident and broken, looking just as at home in a ratty homeless-guy hoodie as he does in the suit he finally gets to put on later in the movie. And in the many fights, he looks like someone who could convincingly knock your nose through the back of your skull.
Right now, there's a shortage of B-level studio action movies that actually get a chance to come out in theaters. Often, Statham seems like the only guy who can get one of these made, which makes him the closest thing we have to a Stallone or Schwarzenegger figure these days, even when you consider that Stallone and Schwarzenegger are out there and trying to make movies like this these days, often with Statham involved. He's never made a straight-up classic, but Safe is something almost as valuable: a great little movie that will suck you in even if you're not expecting much.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies.Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
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