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by Shawn Stone on May 2, 2012

Directed by Boaz Yakin

When is the fighting going to start?

That’s the question that pops into one’s head when settling in to watch a Jason Statham movie. Statham is the preeminent action star of our day, with a cinematic persona built around driving very fast and punching (and kicking) very hard. Yet in films like the appealing Transporter series, the pleasantly delirious Crank films, The Bank Job, The Mechanic and the lamentable Expendables franchise, he’s a very human superhero: In spite of his mad martial arts skills, Statham comes off as an everyman who just happens to be able to kick everyone else’s ass.

In Safe, Statham’s latest, there’s a long, deliberate build-up to the main action. Writer-director Boaz Yakin presents Statham as Luke Wright, a down-and-outer with a lot of enemies (the Russian mob and NYPD being at the top of the list), a former man of violence with nothing to live or die for.

Yakin pairs Luke’s story with that of Mei (an impressive Catherine Chan), a young math whiz who’s kidnapped from China and brought to New York to memorize accounts for the Chinese mob. Mei—whom Yakin presents without sentimentality—proves that she’s street-smart, too, dealing cagily with unsentimental, ego-driven gangsters.

With unusually thorough (and thoroughly satisfying) parallel storytelling, Yakin brings his two lead characters to their most desperate moments simultaneously. The two stories merge on a crowded subway platform, where a suicidal Luke spots a terrified Mei trying to hide from a horde of Russian gangsters. What follows is a tense pursuit in, around and on top of a train as Luke tries to catch up with Mei before the bad guys do. And then the punching, kicking and car chases start and don’t let up until the end of the picture.

The fuss is all about some highly embarrassing, very valuable information that the Chinese mob is trying to buy from shadowy figures associated with the national security apparatus. (This perfectly reasonable cynicism is of the post-9/11, “follow the money” variety.) The info is supposed to be valuable enough to justify the increasingly ridiculous levels of violence; it’s not, however, and operatic scenes like the gangster takeover/slaughter at a midtown hotel ring false. If I was supposed to be thinking of the Mumbai hotel takeover, I wasn’t—and the possible connection only occurred to me later. To Yakin’s credit, however, the film’s final confrontation is economical and satisfying.

There are some fine character actors on hand: James Hong as the Chinese mob’s godfather, Chris Sarandon as a shifty New York City mayor and Robert John Burke as an almost-honest New York cop stand out. Statham is said to be attempting an American accent this time, but I have to confess I didn’t notice; his interplay with Chan is convincing and thoughtful, however, and it’s the relationship between the (reformed) killer and the kid that makes Safe ultimately successful.