'Safe': Everything That's Wrong With Today's Action Movies, in One Film

What's the point of having your main character be an MMA fighter if he's going to rely so much on a gun?

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The first thing we see of Jason Statham in Safe is his upper back, impressively sculpted muscles flexing menacingly. Yes, when you're Jason Statham, even your deltoids can look threatening. If his trapezius could speak, it would be in a low growl. The subject of all that lean tissue's ire? An unseen opponent in the cage-fighting match that's about to get started. Statham's Luke Wright turns, puts on his determined face—which, when you're Jason Statham, is pretty much the same expression as all your other faces—and strides out into the fray.

And then... the camera cuts to a hospital room some time later where his opponent lies, comatose.

That's not the last time that director Boaz Yakin pulls the rug out on a fight scene in the film. It is, however, the last evidence that Wright is supposed to be a mixed martial arts fighter, apart from a throwaway line late in the film explaining why it is that this killing machine—a guy with a vaguely hinted at super-secret special forces background—is spending his time taking dives on a second-rate MMA circuit. That's a shame, because Safe, while not lacking for violence, could use a whole lot more punching, kicking, and headbutting. The same could be said for a lot of action movies these days.

The thoroughly mediocre Safe provides an excuse for Statham to do what Statham does better than anyone else: look stern while punishing bad guys. Those baddies come in the form of both Russian and Chinese mafia goons who are pursuing a little girl with a prodigious memory and a very important series of numbers locked in her head. Statham's Wright, already in trouble with the Russians for failing to throw that film-opening fight, takes it upon himself to rescue the girl when their paths cross, and figure out what it is the number she's committed to memory means.

Forget for a moment that Safe has some of the worst dialogue and cheesiest tough-guy characters this side of the most forgettable straight-to-video action flicks. (In one scene, Yakin sets the hero up for the classic post-kill one-liner, and after dispatching the villain in front of horrified bystanders, Wright fixes them with a steely gaze and quips, "Don't lose sleep... he had it coming." Um, zing?) As, say, Con-Air or the Fast and Furious films have shown, bad writing can be overcome--at least at the box office--with eye-popping set pieces.

But in that respect, Safe is symptomatic of everything that's gone wrong with American action cinema: visually incoherent combat, an unnecessarily convoluted story, and forgettable characters. Adam Sternbergh's excellent New York Times Magazine piece this month on the decline of the American action movie details many of these failings, contrasting them with the violent elegance of the Indonesia's The Raid: Redemption. Watching Safe, I couldn't help thinking about that better film as well.

The Raid: Redemption demonstrates how to film action that's fast-paced and thrilling while still maintaining coherence and graceful visuals. Similarly, the debut of MMA star Gina Carano earlier this year in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire was a throwback to the days when action heroes were athletes first and actors second, and good directors exploited that physical prowess to compensate for boilerplate plots. That was also the case in 2011's brother vs. brother MMA brawler Warrior, the Thai Ong Bak movies, and Takashi Miike's 2010 samurai epic, 13 Assassins—all of which rank among the most interesting action films to hit theaters in recent years. The commitment of those films to showcasing the "art" in their martial arts ends up extending to all aspects of their productions. It's as if the centering, meditative influence of that physical practice centers the movies themselves.

Safe, in contrast, is a case study in missed opportunities. The protagonist has a martial-arts background but little opportunity to use it, instead doing most of his fighting with a gun. Boring.

Martial arts aren't all that's needed to save action movies, though. Even factoring out its magnetic star, Haywire stood above its peers for its willingness to let the film's action play out in lengthy wide shots, rather than in confusing close-ups and quick cuts. Think for a moment of how that approach could have improved the jittery jumble of images that passed for combat in The Hunger Games. Yes, part of the issue there was the need to obscure some of the violence for younger viewers. But a compromise that would allow action to play out from a few steps back in the full frame, combined with strategic cutaways, might have improved the most frustrating element of that film by a huge margin. Let's not even get into how much Michael Bay could stand to learn from the technique.

There's also a straightforward quality to the plotting of many martial-arts films, which rely on easily recognizable good and evil binaries. That binary also defined the golden age of the American action movie, but perhaps in a bid for gravitas—or perhaps influenced by the Bourne movies, the rare case where plot complexity and action mix well—unnecessary narrative twists have muddied the focus of the pure action movie.

That's part of the undoing of Safe, but it's also evident in recent films like the lackluster Denzel Washington thriller Safe House, which features clumsy role reversals and predictable double-crosses. Another disappointing Statham vehicle from last year, Killer Elite, has a setup too complex for its director to even bother filming much of it. Instead, it relies on a technique that is death for an action film: too much expository talking.

If martial-arts movies can sometimes seem formulaic, it's because that formula works. Set up your characters and conflicts quickly and efficiently, and then let them play out violently. It's just that simple. The best action movies share this philosophy. Die Hard is a classic because it establishes the good guys and the bad guys up front, and then focuses on the business of getting the outgunned good to overcome that evil. And when it comes to big hand-to-hand showdowns, it allows things to play out and keeps as much of the fight in the frame as possible.

Ultimately, Safe could have been improved by reducing its contingent of bad guys by half for simplicity's sake, and following through on the martial-arts promise that was made in the introduction of its protagonist. That might have meant casting someone other than Statham, freeing him up to do a movie more suited to his quite-enjoyable talents. Who would have complained?