Safe might end up being 2012's most important meta-commentary on both the possibilities and the limitations of movie stardom, and particularly the concept of the star persona, though I am very close to 100% certain that this was not the intent.
The key thing about the film, of course, is that it's an action movie vehicle for Jason Statham, and the key thing about Statham is that he is, I believe, the purest expression to be found in today's English-language cinema of a certain aspect of the movie star, particularly as it was codified in the '30s during the Golden Age of the studio system. This belief is founded upon some of the following observations:
-Every Jason Statham movie (considered as a separate class from movies in which he appears, but is not the sole lead, viz. The Expendables or arguably Killer Elite) makes very about the same amount of money;
-Which implies that every Jason Statham movie is seen by the same exact set of people;
-And they are the only people who see Jason Statham movies;
-Because Jason Statham movies are all functionally identical both in the sort of action sequences presented and the growly tone that Statham adopts;
-So that if you have seen one you have well and truly seen them all, absent some fluctuations in quality which are anyway only like to be noticed or appreciated by the specialist.
Statham's filmography, then, is a kind of field experiment in star vehicles in their most rarified state, brought up to the 21st Century. We can speak of a "Meryl Streep movie" or a "Jason Segel movie", and know in approximate terms what we're in for (Streep almost certainly plays a character with a distinct accent, and it is very likely a charming light comedy or a milquetoast character drama; Segel is a sarcastic potty-mouth in a comedy about some aspect of American maledom), but to speak of a "Jason Statham movie" tells us all we can possibly want to know about the mood, the pace, the level of violence, several particulars of the plot, and within limts, even the running time. There are outliers, like The Bank Job, but even that is something like a Statham movie variant on a caper plot, and the effect of his entire leading man career is rather akin to say, an Astaire & Rogers film: we go not to be surprised, but to see something we already know that we like, done exactly the way we have previously liked it - and as an unashamed Statham fancier, I do not mind suggesting that he is to a certain breed of meathead action picture as Astaire & Rogers were to dance movies: their finest practitioner, though he be limited in every other regard than doing this one thing.
And that finally brings us back around to Safe, which is a Statham movie about Statham trying to do so something else than that one thing, while also doing is one thing on top of it. Without talking about the details of the plot, because really, the film (written and directed by Boaz Yakin, whose career as a director is undistinguished and whose career as a screenwriter is embarrassing) involves Statham protecting a little girl, Mei (Catherine Chan), from the Triad that kidnapped her from China and brought her to New York, as well as the Russian mafia that wants to grill her for all the knowledge she has of the Triad's inner business workings (she was kidnapped in the first place for her unnatural ability to memorise and process numbers), as well as the dirty cops on the Triad payroll, the Russian payroll, and the undecided dirty cops who are willing to go either way.
"Great!" says the Statham fanboy (at least, this one did), "Statham protecting a child from gangs? I mean, that's practically the plot of Transporter 2, which is at least the second-best of the Trasnporter films! Sounds like a winner to me." And on that level, at least, Safe should have been a no-brainer. But here's the issue:Safe isn't just that. Though it is partially that, of course, and that part is generally fine: the editing is a good deal more complex than it really has to be, and Yakim and editor Frédéric Thoraval commit the cardinal sin of making us lose track of where the good guys and bad guys are relative to each other in what would otherwise be the film's highlight, a multi-part car chase (they similarly drop the ball on another failed peak, a nightclub shoot out). But the film's sense of scale is firmly intact, and while Statham may not be a fleet of invading aliens, it seems quite likely that he could still level the appealingly gritty New York streets where he stomps around angrily if the thought crossed his mind.
But, you see, Safe has a plot - not "a plot" in the sense that other Statham movies have "plots" that are really just pretexts, e.g. Crank, but an actual plot - and it's frankly not very good. And Statham plays a character - under the same qualification I have just given - and it's not a role that fits him. For this Statham character, who I would not have known was called "Luke Wright" if I didn't look it up, is mourning the death of his wife at the hands of those same Russian mobsters, and feels that he is being punished for a history of violence that is revealed basically all in one go near the two-thirds mark, and he sees Mei as being the last chance he has to save his soul. That is to say: this is the movie where Jason Statham cries and is sad, in between growling and killing. And far be it from me to say that action movie stars should neither cry nor be sad! We'd all be better off if all violent movies stressed the human cost of the heightened, consequence-free violence they peddle as entertainment.
But y'see, Statham's whole existence is predicated on not crying, as it were, and this role sees him violating an unspoken pact he has made with his audience. Besides the which, and this is what actually matters: he's not good at it. Any more than Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, no matter how sudsy their banter and how thrilling their perfect dancing, would be able to take over for Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, (though Astaire subbing for Garson and Rogers for Pidgeon, now that I'd like to see). This is part of what makes movie stars work: not that they are good at acting but good at doing one thing that isn't acting, and doing it on camera. When they are called upon to Act-with-a-capital-"A", it can be exciting, is frequently pointless, and here is just dismaying.
And so we have Weepy Statham, horribly unconvincing as a tender-tough guy in any regard, and the whole edifice of Safe comes down around him; and that's even before the last act just plain gives up and tries to sell us a Big Bad who doesn't make sense either in the context of the plot preceding or based on the wholly bland performance bringing him to life, and whatever good will the film's solid but not spectacular setpieces have managed to drum up is wiped away in irritation and the film's refusal to just get on with it.
But: Chris Sarandon plays the slimy mayor of New York, and as one who takes any amount of slimy Sarandon I can get, this strikes me as being a good thing. Also, James Wong plays the Triad boss, and speaks every single line of his entire role in Mandarin, and I didn't realise until I was watching it that I've never actually seen that happen despite him being pretty much every casting director's first choice when a Chinese character shows up in the call sheet. So see? Even a bad Jason Statham movie is capable of showing us something new and original, if you just know where to look.