'Safe' (R)

His Awesomeness, Jason Statham, has let it be known that he chooses his films based on the fight choreographer the producers hire. Often as not, that blows up in his face. Why else would the Human Bullet from Blighty end up in dogs like War, Transporter 3 and Death Race?

But with Safe, working with choreographer J.J. Perry (Haywire), that strategy pays off. A slow-building B-movie thriller, the plot is nothing new for Statham. There’s a girl in need of his protection from assorted gangs of bad men. But the dialogue crackles with flinty one-liners.

“Don’t lose sleep. He had it coming,” he tells bystanders after killing a boatload of bad guys. His bald skull and perma-stubbled face lean into the camera like the athlete he was and is, bristling at the bit, ready to get on with the serious citywide butt-whipping he’s about to lay on 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 to a year before, when  a Chinese mobster (James Hong, reliably evil) needs her as his courier. Numbers on a computer “leave a trail,” 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.

The dialogue and the characters are better than the plot. And the fights are better than even the one-liners. Statham never phones it in, though his roles can seem to be one long version of 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 still the safest bet there is.

Cast: Jason Statham, Catherine Chang, Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon, James Hong.

Writer-director: Boaz Yakin.

Producers: Lawrence Bender, Dana Brunetti.

A Lionsgate Films release. Running time: 94 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Friday April 27 at area theaters.


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