Boaz Yakin Actioner Plays It Safe

Beneath Jason Statham’s chin scruff is a heart of gold. Producer Luc Besson never let it go sentimental in movies like the terrific Transporter series or Besson-influenced productions like War with Jet Li. Neveldine-Taylor took Statham’s violent relentless stoicism to the heights of social satire in the avant-garde Crank films. But now, the movie Safe makes Statham a run-of-the-mill action figure.

As Luc Besson knock-offs go, Safe is only better than Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s Besson knock-off that excited critics who routinely, racistly dismissed the superlative kinetics and deep feeling in Colombiana. It’s becoming tiresome–and numbing–to see third-rate action movies pushing into territory that Besson has refined.

I lost count of the gunshots in Safe but as more and more cops, gangsters and innocent bystanders fell to flying lead (on the streets, in alleys, restaurants and the entrance to bank vaults), I began to resent director Boaz Yakin’s killing orgies. His efforts toward violent pizzazz suggested a new career making cinematic snooze-buttons rather than directing.

Yakin’s best effect (using a car’s rear-view mirror to take single-camera advantage of the melee happening on all sides of a vehicle) recalls Soderbergh’s one good Haywire trick when a car is put in reverse and a deer comes bounding through the back windscreen. Yet, Yakin’s violent paroxysms lack feeling and meaning just like Soderbergh‘s. These guys don’t understand action aesthetics (or its moral purpose–which is key to Besson’s brilliance). To Yakin and Soderbergh, it’s just aural and visual noise in degraded imitation of Besson’s excellence. (Same could be said for Guy Pearce doing a Statham in Lockout, a Besson comedy without visual wit.)

Statham always deserves commendation for his usually fine taste in projects, such as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race (the film that does the social commentary The Hunger Games can’t). Unfortunately, Safe is the poorest film I’ve seen Statham in lately. Here, Statham takes on the Leon the Professional role that Jean Reno had originated for Besson; Statham plays Luke Wright, a badass giving protection to a young girl Mei (played by Catherine Chan) who is abducted by the Chinese Triads and caught in the middle of their war with the Russian mob and corrupt New York yawn…I mean, cops.

At least Statham looks his usual lean self, truculent and forceful . Yakin remains his old indie self; he previously used the endangered child ploy when making his 1994 calling-card movie Fresh about a grade-school drug-dealer-pimp. (No joke, just liberal sanctimony.) Here Mei, whose can compute elaborate numbers, witnesses unspeakable killings and takes it in stride, losing any interesting comparison to the her hot-blooded mentor‘s robotic slaughter. Critic Richard Torres once called Statham the new Mitchum but with such hackneyed written-in characterization, Luke Wright is more like Eastwood in spaghetti westerns. Yakin confuses spaghetti irony with Besson’s compassion–the great place Colombiana tooks its vengeful heroine that Zoe Saldana played so splendidly.

Besson’s action movies are really about modern hurdles to human connection; Yakin’s Safe is only about biting someone else’s success. Sure, he follows formula better than Nicholas Winding Refn’s ludicrous Drive but it’s almost the same kind of nonsense. (Hard to believe the media prefers Ryan Gosling’s smugness to Statham’s sterling chivalry.) Whatever its offense in copycat crime, just be grateful Yakin’s Safe is not Todd Haynes’ stultifying 1995 Safe.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair