The title is a witty double entendre, referring not only to the actual safe that everyone is trying to break into, but also the act of keeping a young girl safe that Statham readily, heroically accepts. However, I think they inadvertently leaned too heavily towards yet another definition of the word: bland, boring, pedestrian.
My biggest complaint with Safe is that it violated Action Movie Unwritten Rule #1: Don’t try to be more than you are. In this case, you’re a showcase for Jason Statham beating people up. That’s it. If you’re a shoot ‘em up (Clive Owen’s version of which sucked ass, btw. Crank was everything that movie wanted to be, but that’s another discussion) don’t try to pretend you’re something bigger with some convoluted, unnecessary, meandering plot.
Sure, there are exceptions- Haywire was much more an espionage film than an action movie, and it starred Gina Carano. But it worked. That usually doesn’t happen. Haywire actually had a decent story as well as some good fight scenes. Not so much with another Statham movie: Killer Elite. Marketed as an action movie, it most definitely was not and disappointed in that regard. A mistake repeated with The Mechanic. The point being keep it simple, like Tango and Cash or the aforementioned Crank. Or if you don’t really have a plot, just skip it altogether. Be like Cobra.
On top of the contrived plot, Safe also tried to be stylish and cool with clever edits and slick storyline shifts. Cutting from one scene… to a scene with a similar line or action or event that would bridge the two. Kind of like a film school dropout’s version of Tarantino. Not that such editing is necessarily bad, but when taken in conjunction with all the other things this movie did wrong it’s just another detriment.
On to the story- a washed up MMA fighter/garbage man who won’t play dirty and is unjustly punished for it. Such a fresh angle. I’ll bet if Mel Gibson wasn’t in the shitter he would’ve starred in this movie. Especially considering that the protagonist’s wife (who we never even see, let alone learn anything about. How are we supposed to empathize? Oh wait, they did give us one tantalizing clue about her- apparently she was ugly) is murdered to teach him a lesson. Have you ever noticed how many of Mel’s movies have his wife or girlfriend get killed? And usually by his enemies? Look it up. It’s actually more than a little disturbing, moreso now that we know what a volatile misogynist he is.
So back to the story. In the history of MMA, nobody’s ever been put into a coma with one punch! But I guess that’s how tough our anti-hero is. So be it, I’ll take that ride with you. But from there it’s downhill. The whole premise is just too ridiculous… as the Chinese mob strolls around Chinatown asking the girl questions, she starts reciting dollar amounts that various businesses have been earning- to the penny! Can you believe it? To the PENNY!!! I can’t think of any other way for them to track these figures than a broad-daylight kidnapping of China’s pre-teen Good Will Hunting and forcing her to work for your gang under threat of her mother’s death if she doesn’t cooperate. Except maybe a pen and paper. Or a calculator. Like a really nice one from TI that does fractions and shit.
Back to our hero. After the Russian mob murders his wife, they opt to let him live under the burden of knowing that anyone he befriends will also be killed. Even an obnoxious transient with no redeeming qualities who was probably going to steal his shoes (No! Not him!!! You bastards!). Which raises another point- if the Russian mob has the time and resources to literally follow him everywhere, all the time (including on the subway and in a homeless shelter that seemed more like a federal penitentiary. What the hell kind of shelter has armed guards, “lights out” curfew, and the aura of a prison camp?), maybe they’d be better off putting those resources into their turf war with the Triads. Just a suggestion.
But that murder of the homeless guy got me thinking: the ninja-like presence and brutality of the Russians almost seems like a superpower. Imagine, if someone annoys you- just befriend them and by morning they’re dead. That would be fucking awesome! People who talk on their cellphones while they’re at the cashier? Gone. People who double park? See ya. Bicyclists? Adios (I don’t mean ALL bicyclists. Just the obnoxious spandex-wearing ones who think the rules of traffic don’t apply to them but will not hesitate to give you shit if you encroach on their precious bike lane by an inch with your car).
So our hero is drifting along aimlessly through life, alone, when he sees the young math prodigy being chased by the same mobsters that murdered his wife. He sees here, finally, a purpose. Something to live for. Something to fight for. This is one of the few parts of the movie that I find believable. So he jumps headlong into the fray, kicks the Russians’ asses, and steps up as the girl’s protector. Oh, and by the way- of course he used to be a cop. (the moment where the director is hoping the entire audience goes “Whaaaa…?” in unison).
There’s just too much that doesn’t make sense- the Russians’ omnipresence, the Triad’s need for the girl in the first place, the cops (former associates) who beat him up for old time’s sake then just decide to stop and let him go, the cops tracking the Russians’ cellphones but not keeping tabs on their credit cards, the hotel with armed security… which, by the way, how logistically impossible would it be to pull off a hostile takeover of an ENTIRE FUCKING HOTEL??? Not to mention the fact that in modern-day New York City that would no doubt be considered an act of terrorism and even if you got away, the already precarious alliance/truce between your mob and the cops would be replaced by a hail of gunfire the likes of which would give Sam Peckinpah a hard on. By the time we find out that one of the safes holds a measly $30 million I’m already looking at my watch trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my day once I get out of here. Really? $30 million? If your mob doesn’t just have that kind of cash lying around in bags with dollar signs printed on them, you might as well pack it in and go back to Pangea or wherever the hell you’re from. Mob life isn’t for you.
The final “fuck you” to the audience was the abbreviated last showdown between Statham and his former badass/special agent/whatever the hell they were compatriot. Again, the director goes for clever here, ending the fight literally before it even begins by having the girl shoot the bad guy. That kind of “this dude is so badass you don’t even get to see it” shortcut works in some situations, like the Joker overpowering the cops in The Dark Knight, or Cromartie wiping out an entire FBI team in The Sarah Connor Chronicles (yes, I know I’m probably the only one who watched that show; if you had watched it too maybe it wouldn’t have gotten cancelled. Thanks for nothing, jerks), or even here in this very movie- when at the beginning they cut short Statham's MMA fight just before he landed his coma-inducing punch. But here it’s just another cheap gimmick that doesn’t pay off. Reminiscent also of the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark scene, where a swordsman displays his flashy skills only to have Indy shoot him. But again, there it works. Mostly because that isn't the fucking climax.
Much as I like the guy, Statham’s filmography has been very hit or miss. And this one unfortunately falls into the “miss” column.