Safe (2012) (US - BD RA)
Gabe watches Jason Statham smash heads to rescue another MacGuffin kid...
Luke Wright (Statham) was living a normal life as a second-rate mixed martial arts cage fighter until screwing up a rigged fight. The Russian Mafia decides to make an example of him to prevent this from happening again and murders his family. With nothing to live for anymore, Wright wanders the streets of New York full of guilt and anger until he encounters Mei (Catherine Chan), a frightened 12-year-old Chinese girl. An orphaned math prodigy, Mei had been forced to work for the Triads as a counter and holds the key to a numerical code that could destroy them, the mob and corrupt cops within the NYPD. After discovering that the same gangsters who killed his family are pursuing her, Wright takes matters into his own hands to protect the innocent girl and seek revenge. (From the official Lionsgate synopsis)
I often wonder if Hollywood screenwriters live in such a vacuum that they don’t know other movies even exist. I know there’s a long tradition of mimicry, but certain movies have such a minute impact on culture and filmdom that you just have to assume no one would ever rip them off on purpose. Writer/director Boaz Yakin doesn’t strike me as a person that would see Harold Becker’s pseudo-flop Mercury Rising and decide he absolutely needed to remake it, but in not so vague terms he kind of has. It’s not impossible to extend the benefit of the doubt either, but the super-special MacGuffin child trope has been so overused in action cinema recently that it’s hard to extend him any other excuses for not paying attention. I have personally reviewed three movies in the last two years that feature generally indestructible tough guys protecting children from the bad guys that need them for nefarious purposes – Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry, Len Wiseman’s Underworld: Awakening, and Neveldine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Lee Jeong-Beom’s The Man From Nowhere comes awfully close). Michael Davis’ Shoot ‘Em Up and Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet were also widely released in American theaters within the last decade. It’s almost as common as invading aliens and zombie apocalypses at this point.*
In Yakin’s defense is a strong and eclectic filmography, including the urban crime drama Fresh (which also features a prodigy child at the center of its plot), the true-life sports drama Remember the Titans, and dopey teen-comedy Uptown Girls. There isn’t a flashy, R-rated action flick in the mix. Often, when filmmakers approach a style of filmmaking they aren’t particularly well versed in, they build the exercise around a common plot cliché, which they can then invert and/or ignore in favour of stylistic experimentation. See: Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, Joe Wright’s Hanna or Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire.
Safe isn’t as experimental or strange as these films and as a first time straight action director Yakin makes some obvious rookie mistakes, but the overall action is impactful and the storytelling efficiency is impressive. The entire film appears to have been made for the director to play with really, really aggressive, yet consistent editing and camera techniques. The camerawork is a bit too incessantly tight and shaky for my taste, but it’s rare that the rapid-fire cutting and crash-zooming makes for an utterly incomprehensible image. The camerawork is at its best when the camera itself is treated like an subjective bystander. The fact that these point-of-view shots don’t belong to any onscreen character help propagate the illusion of audience participation. Sometimes, Yakin’s jerky rhythms and random crash zooms are too aggressive, making for a confusing image, but every major action sequence is punctuated by a somewhat surreal touch that sets it apart from a saturated pack of interchangeable shoot ‘em ups. The violence is brutal and efficient, though not particularly gory. Still, there’s little sense of Yakin pulling his punches and Safe is a nice break from Statham’s ‘safer’ (ha, pun!) PG-13 output. Beyond the MacGuffin kid trope, the screenplay snags a heavy dose of alternate clichés, but Yakin mostly uses them as story shorthand, which allows him to explore his aggressive montage editing without leaving the audience in the dust. The side effect of this is that it creates some problems during the handful of scenes that break from the pace, making them appear more like sudden stops in narrative, rather than breathers. The relentless action also slowly turns to numbing after about an hour, leaving us to notice how thin and even stupid the plot really is. I’m afraid I was done with the experience before the movie was over. Fortunately, the climatic ‘boss fight’ is worth the wait for the punch-line.
I’ve been building a theory over the last ten years that Jason Statham is the younger, cheaper, 100% more British version of Bruce Willis. The fact that Safe and Mercury Rising have so much in common is merely the tip of the iceberg. Willis practically made a career of ‘protection’ movies that fit under all genre headings, including Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, and Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller’s Sin City. Statham, who you have to admit more than slightly resembles Willis, started in particularly talkative rolls in Guy Ritchie movies, but his mainstream breakthrough was a trilogy of films where he’s forced to protect VIPs despite his preference not to – the Luc Besson-produced Transporter series (let’s just ignore how often this motif appears throughout Besson’s career for the sake of brevity, all right?). Yakin’s effectively uses both Statham’s career and his similarities to Willis as part of his story-crafting shorthand. It works to a certain extent, but there’s a sense of the director depending too much on his audience recognizing Statham and not enough on the actor’s actual performance. This is especially sad, because Statham gives a particularly strong dramatic performance overall.
Side note: If you ever see Lawrence Bender’s name on the credits of a film (outside of one directed by Quentin Tarantino), you can be sure that this ‘failed’ actor-turned-producer will give himself a cameo. In the case of Safe he’s not only front and center, with a line and a death scene, he appeared in the freakin’ trailer.
Shot on 35mm and then digitally graded to appear supernaturally colourful, Safe comes to Blu-ray with a strong 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. I’m actually pretty surprised the movie wasn’t shot digitally, because the final product is so stylized and unnatural. Just when I think the whole Orange and Teal thing is on its way out, Safe swings around and slams me in the face with enough of the two hues to make my head spin. Though, if I’m fair, these ‘orange’ hues are closer to yellow most of the time. The only other colours aside from black and white are poppy red highlights and very occasional rich greens. The purity of these hues is downright creepy at times, even funny, as every piece of incidental background advertising/graphic design features, quite literally, exactly three colours, but this isn’t a fault as far as the transfer is concerned. All five hues are plenty clean, featuring only minor noise artefacts and bleeding (bleeding occurs mostly along the edges of the redder hues). Aside from the weird colour quality, the basic image is usually clean and often even soft in a particularly digital way. There is enough black grain to verify the format, but the often unfocused backgrounds feature fine noise that appears much more digital. Contrast levels are stark, but there aren’t many sharp edges throughout; rather, Yakin and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky aim for a more even flow of gradation. Fine detail and texture levels depend largely on lighting, but there is a basic consistency to things, assuming they appear in the foreground. The entire film is pretty dark, which is kind of bleak, but does lead to some wonderfully pure black levels and well represented pin-light details.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is a little quieter than expected, but overall quite lively and impressive when needed. The minor volume issues apply almost entirely to the centered dialogue and especially when the dialogue isn’t covered by much in the way of other sound. The fact that the center channel is a bit on the quiet side stands in contrast to the hyperactive stereo and surround effects. The sound design is mostly designed to press the aggressive editing style and create a more dynamic difference between the quickly cut locations, even adding abstract stereophonic noise to represent the changeover. Of course, there’s plenty of straight action and this features more in the way of directional movement, such as the rush of objects zooming over the subway car Statham is crawling on, cars zipping by as he drives the wrong way on a busy New York street, and, of course, a wide assortment of punchy bullets moving across the stage. The rear channels are punched up with extensive ambience (every location is alive with activity without drawing attention away from anything important) and a whole bunch of Mark Mothersbaugh (yes, that Mark Mothersbaugh) musical score. Mothersbaugh’s name usually marks a score as something particularly unique, but, in this case, the former Devo songwriter sticks pretty close to the action movie usual, including just enough bounce and bombast to ensure we notice what he’s doing. His end credit piece pleasantly recalls Alan Silvestri’s ‘80s and ‘90s work.
The extras begin with a solid, informative, and entertaining solo audio commentary track with writer/director Yakin. The track begins with Yakin explaining his roots writing action films, the fact that this is his first straight action movie, and what precisely he wanted to do with the subject matter, which he admits has been overplayed throughout the past couple decades including Mercury Rising, which he says he learned about while writing and decided not to watch for fear that it would colour his film. Not surprisingly, it is the experiment of attaching Statham and Chan’s characters through editing (rather than shared screentime) that really pressed him to make the film. From here the track really becomes a bit of a class in exactly how Yakin went about achieving his stylistic goals, and precisely which films and filmmakers inspired him (William Friedkin’s French Connection and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns are mentioned more than once). Yakin is also very good at patting his cast and crew on the back in context of the film and the rest of said cast or crew member’s career. It’s rare a director talks about how great his lead actor is without sounding like the head of a fan club. This track is honest and technical when needed as well.
Cracking Safe (11:40, HD) is the first of three elongated EPK featuring interviews with Yakin, producer Lawrence Bender, actor Jason Statham, stunt coordinators J.J. Perry and Chad Stahelski, along with behind the scenes footage and storyboards. This featurette covers similar ground to the commentary, but the stunt coordinators’ P.O.V. helps add another dimension to the discussion. Criminal Battleground (8:00, HD) continues to cover stuff already covered in the commentary with a more specific focus on New York movies and the film’s top-notch character actors. The Art of a Gunfight (10:16, HD) covers more stunt coordination, specifically that of the film’s club shootout, including footage from the stunt team’s previz footage. The extras end with trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
Safe has its strengths and they’re almost entirely stylistic, but this style doesn’t quite extend the length of the film. Eventually, the seams start to show and split, leaving the audience with merely a ‘better than average,’ nearly arthouse action movie. Still, it’s the best Jason Statham-brand film in some time. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray features a strong, uncannily consistent HD transfer and a very lively DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack, along with a very solid director’s commentary track.
* More on the subject of the ‘MacGuffin child’ genre phenomenon that doesn’t really fit with my review above: The quest to find more of these films became a bit of a Facebook game while I was prepping this review. Other obvious genre fits include James Cameron’s Terminator 2, which continued the themes of the first Terminator with a kid-centric slant, Michael Ritchie’s The Golden Child, and Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld. There’s a similar ‘protect the kid’ subgenre, which includes a bevy of action films like Leon: The Professional, Man on Fire, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but here the child protagonist isn’t such an obvious plot device. There’s another similar motif following witness/VIP protection throughout action fiction as well, including films like Witness, Midnight Run, and Chuck Russell’s Eraser, but this subgenre doesn’t require a specific age – it only requires a relatively powerless character to be protected by an obviously more powerful one. A list of these films could easily go on for ten more pages.
** Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 4th September 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director's Commentary, Cracking Safe, Criminal Battleground, The Art of the Gunfight, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Boaz Yakin
Cast: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Reggie Lee, Robert John Burke, Anson Mount, James Hong, Chris Sarandon
Genre: Action and Thriller
Length: 95 minutes