What starts out crisp and promising gives way to a conventional shoot-’em-up in “Safe,” a fast-paced but extremely familiar vehicle for Jason Statham, who can only carry the material so far on his brawny shoulders. Writer-director Boaz Yakin’s first stab at directing unadulterated action can’t sustain its initial burst of energy, and by the time someone rightfully observes, “This is really getting out of hand,” so has the movie. Not that such shortcomings should interfere with solid business prior to the summer onslaught among those willing to put their brains on auto-pilot for 90-odd minutes.
Yakin wrote such movies as “The Punisher” (1989) and “The Rookie” (1990) before his impressive directorial debut with “Fresh,” and for the first 25 minutes or so, he appears to have pulled off an unexpected coup with his latest single-syllable effort. In the opening stretch, the narrative rapidly cuts back and forth, setting up parallel stories involving its two central characters: a cage fighter/human killing machine named Luke Wright (Statham) and an 11-year-old Chinese girl with a photographic memory, Mei (newcomer Catherine Chan).
Shipped to America as a “counter,” Mei essentially serves as the MacGuffin in an elaborate web of wanton corruption, carrying around a numeric code inside her head since her security-concerned overlords don’t like leaving trails, electronic or otherwise. But that secret makes her a target once she escapes, with the Chinese Triad, Russian mob and dirty police all after her. Meanwhile, Luke has his own “Punisher”-like history that has depleted his will to live, before he encounters Mei and realizes she’s being pursued by the same goons who destroyed his happy home.
Even for a traditional revenge tale, the beginning speeds by with style and efficiency. After that, however, “Safe” becomes a series of frenetic encounters yielding an almost-comical body count, with much of the carnage taking place in public spaces around screaming civilians. While the audience is perhaps expected to accept this absence of discretion in criminal enterprises from notorious communist strongholds, it’s still jarring to see such a lack of concern for people and property on crowded city streets.
For Statham, the role doesn’t venture far from the taciturn territory he occupied in the “Transporter” series, with a touch of “The Professional” given his empathy for this orphaned tyke, whose precociousness proves a hit-miss proposition as the movie progresses. Unfortunately, the emphasis on promiscuous gunplay somewhat dilutes the muscular close-quarters ass-kicking for which Statham’s known, though with so many bad guys to dispatch, there’s plenty of both. (“The Expendables'” stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski provides the fight choreography.)
Despite a few modest twists, the bare-bones plot barely holds together long enough to justify all the mayhem. Beyond Statham, the main kick comes from seeing octogenarian James Hong offer a variation on the same heavy he has played seemingly several dozen times before.
Yakin’s script contains a few amusing throwaway lines, but “Safe” doesn’t go so far as to embrace the absurdity of its situations, while seldom slowing down once it gets rolling to worry about characters. It’s not bad, strictly on a visceral level, and as an action star, Statham certainly has convincing flair. Yet the filmmakers are so mindful of their core assets, every choice “Safe” makes after the opening — from the look to the music — seems bound and determined to live down to its title.