Friday, 21 June 2013

Safe: the Stath abides

Jason Statham is a curiosity, a man who can't really act, can carry a movie, and yet somehow doesn't really play to the worn-to-death wiseass schtick of a Willis or Schwarzenegger. Mostly he shows up, beats the living hell out of things, and then wanders off again, like a normal-sized and somewhat more plausible version of Jack Reacher. Somehow, for reasons I don't really understand, Jason Statham movies cheer me up. Possibly it's because, like most people in office jobs, I can't help thinking how much better the world would be if rampaging morons in suits were treated with blunt force trauma rather than grudging deference. 

It turns out, I discovered a while ago, that there are essentially two tracks to Statham's work. One is simple-minded high concept idiocy where for whatever reason he has to beat up everything else in the movie while protecting some innocent or other, and the other is stuff where he's doing something darker and more complicated. The second sort of movie seems to go almost immediately to video; I watched a couple of them earlier this year, and can unburden myself of a Stathamist top tip; if you have heard of literally anyone else in a Jason Statham movie as a serious actor, don't watch that movie. The Stath works best as the lone tentpole in a wilderness of B list day players; put a bit of quality around him and the magic just falls apart.

The makers of Safe got this memo, or they didn't have very much money. It's nothing but Statham and day players as far as the eye can see. And it's a stupid high concept movie where Statham protects the innocent and afflicts the comfortable. It is not, however, a particularly good movie. Worse, it's not even a particularly good Stath movie. Here's why.

If you look at it from the point of view of plotting, Safe is absolutely risible. It starts with two perfectly good ideas. Idea one; get a cute kid who's a human computer and have the Chinese mob somewhat implausibly use her as an accounting system. Not bad. Walking Maguffin, by far the best kind; leaves the hero's hands free for punching people. Idea two; down and out hero who's dragging his way through a dead end life because the Russian mob have told him that as a punishment for letting them down, they're going to kill anyone he so much as shares a cup of coffee with. Ludicrous, but sort of cool. The rampaging idiocy starts not when the Maguffin is rescued by the hero, not even when it turns out that the hero is a ridiculously effective ex-spy who hasn't been in any way slowed down by a year sleeping rough, but when it turns out that the key secret that the Maguffin has trapped in her head relates perfectly to every single aspect of the hero's backstory. 


No, it really is. There was a perfectly good movie in there, and some total toolbag decided that it would be improved by making it 150 million per cent more stupid. And the niggling little giveaway that the writers knew better than this shows up in the way the movie handles all kinds of small business in a clever and economical way. There's a car chase through crowded streets, which the Stath calls off because all kinds of innocent people are going to get hurt; this is genius. On the one hand, it saves the production a fortune (on a chase which has already been done very cleverly by showing most of it from inside the car); on the other hand, it's a very clever piece of characterisation, showing us a hero who can work out the consequences of his actions and cares about the community. And of course it's unexpected; no-one ever calls off the car chase. I've never seen it done. Later on, someone tries to shoot a lock open; the ricochet blows a huge chunk out of his leg, and he does not in any way man up about it. The climactic fight between the Stath and his evil nemesis is magnificently subverted in a way which makes perfect character sense for everyone on screen, and also saves us the trouble of watching one of those tiresome mano-a-mano punch ups which go on forever and can only end one way. Someone on the writing team was, in between studio notes, trying to keep it real. Which is what makes it frustrating when it's not.

Other thoughts. I know I said that in good Stath movies, he's always the lone apocalypse in a sea of enemies, but even by that standard, Safe goes too far. Literally everyone else in the movie is a venal, crooked, dickbag - well, not the Maguffin, obviously. You've got the Russian mob; dickbags, of course. The Chinese mob; inscrutable dickbags. The NYPD (who surely need a better PR company); crooked dickbags in hock to every mob in town. The NY mayor's office, including the mayor; dickbags whose only issue with NYPD corruption is its lack of ambition. Once he stirs himself from his initial apathy, the Stath kills almost everyone else in the movie, and it still feels like he's not doing anything like enough to clean up Dodge. This movie makes policier Paris look like Mayberry. If space aliens had this as their only evidence of life on earth, they'd nuke the place from orbit and call themselves humanitarians.

So, second Stathamist top tip of the day; Transporter's good fun, and the two Crank movies are so riotously wrong they turn out to be right again. That's probably as far as most of us need to go on the Stath train.

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