Safe‘s primary contribution to the burgeoning Jason-Statham-kicks-everyone’s-ass subgenre is setting three of its set pieces in crowded New York City venues (a subway car, a hotel dining room, and a Chinatown nightclub) where shootouts lead to believable mass-exodus pandemonium. That touch, however, is the only realistic element in Boaz Yakin’s otherwise ludicrous—and ludicrously convoluted—actioner, which seems determined to confound from the outset via opening crosscutting between young math-genius Mei (Catherine Chan), who’s being used by organized criminals in Manhattan to keep their books the “old-school” way (i.e. in her head), and cage-fighter Luke (Statham), whose refusal to throw a fight leads to the Russian mafia killing his wife and making him homeless. These strangers’ paths are of course destined to cross, but it takes a host of intricate plotting to get there, as Yakin’s story lays out a tangled web of allegiances between rival crime organizations and corrupt NYPD officers that all revolves around a set of coded numbers that Mei has been forced to memorize. With seemingly everyone and their mother out to nab Mei, it’s Luke who winds up being her savior when he sees his wife’s murderers stalking her and comes to her aid by hopping aboard the back of a moving subway, traversing its roof, and then moving inside to beat the living pulp out of her stalkers—a fierce rescue punctuated by Luke hurling one man crotch-first into a metal pole.
Luke is driven partially by vengeance, but, as established by his earlier desire to give a gangrene-infected man his new shoes, also a fundamentally compassionate heart—and, unlucky for his adversaries, it turns out he’s not some bum, but, in fact, a secret task force assassin hired by the mayor (Chris Sarandon) to defend NYC post-9/11. This farfetched scenario only becomes more ludicrous as Luke carries out an elaborate scheme to pit warring factions against one another while he accesses the safe to which Mei’s numbers (which are a combination) open, and which houses $30 million. As befitting a film that introduces its main villain out of the blue in its last few scenes, Safe is a gracelessly plotted machine, but it’s a well-oiled one when it comes to violence, as Yakin’s camerawork—often digitally enhanced to provide exaggerated single-takes that zoom to and fro amidst gunfire and hand-to-hand mayhem—routinely gets in tight to Statham’s brutality, conveying every blow with potent force. That sense of physicality does much to enhance fights that, like the plot itself, strive to make up for lack of originality or coherence with breakneck swiftness. In the end, however, it’s the imposing Statham’s badass grimace and combat acumen that primarily elevate Safe above your average direct-to-video genre work, with every flying punch and snapped wrist reconfirming the star’s status as this era’s Charles Bronson-style angel of righteous death.