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.