Jason Statham has let it be known he chooses films based on the fight choreographer. As often as not, that blows up in his face. But with Safe, working with choreographer J.J. Perry (Haywire), that strategy pays off.
Safe is a slow-building B-movie thriller, nothing new for Statham. A girl needs his protection from assorted gangs of bad men. But the dialogue crackles with flinty one-liners.
Statham leans into the camera like the athlete he was and is, bristling at the bit, ready to get on with the serious citywide butt-whipping of the Russian and Chinese mobs and New York cops on the take.
We meet Mei (Catherine Chan), who is in a Russian mobster's office. He wants something from her. A number. He says he'll subject her to "one of those tortures you people are so famous for."
Nobody in Safe is politically correct. And nobody thinks anything of menacing a little girl. Mei is 11.
Flash back a year earlier, when Mei was in a Chinese school, correcting her teacher's math. A Chinese mobster (James Hong, reliably evil) needs her as his courier. Numbers on a computer "leave a trail that's easy to follow," he purrs in Mandarin. Little girls who can remember long strings of numbers do not.
Writer-director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans, Uptown Girls) keeps us off balance, spending much of the film's first half-hour following Mei, winning sympathy for her plight. Shipped to America, in the care of a murderous adoptive dad (Reggie Lee), she's had to learn "business" the hard way — witnessing torture, murder, shakedowns and corruption.
Then there's mixed martial arts cage fighter Luke (Statham), who has just crippled an opponent in the ring in a fight that Luke was supposed to throw. The Russian gamblers plan elaborate punishment for him. They kill his pregnant wife and turn him loose, promising to kill anyone he gets close to, wherever he goes.
Mei slips free of her captors, but only temporarily. The Chinese and Russian mobs want her, and crooked cops are playing both gangs against each other, led by menacing Capt. Wolf (Robert John Burke). That's when Luke sees her and finds, in her, a purpose: keep her safe.
What we have here is an American Transporter, with Statham caught up in the most jaw-dropping, quick-cut fights you've seen in years. He plows through Russians on the subway, Chinese gangsters in a casino and cops in between, navigating streets with dazzling automotive dexterity. Occasionally he stops long enough to make a threat.
"When I'm done, you won't even be the memory of a memory," he tells a villain.
And Mei? She speaks the fractured English of an 11-year-old learning English as a second language: "Now you know everything. Happiness for you?"
The dialogue and characters are better than the plot. And the fights are better than even the one-liners. Statham never phones it in, although his roles can seem to be always the same guy: haunted and hunted, in need of a shave.
Yakin writes his story into a few corners, and the object of this quest, again having to do with numbers, is pedestrian.
But Statham makes Yakin's lines sing. And thanks to Perry, he brings the pain. In the world of B-movie action, Statham's the safest bet there is.