Safe’s director commentary is much smarter than the film

Safe’s director commentary is much smarter than the film

In Commentary Tracks Of The Damned, we look to the commentary track to glean further insight on a failed film, be it a financial flop, a critical disappointment, or both.

Safe (2012)

Crimes:

  • Attempting to play up the almost nonexistent vulnerability of human fist Jason Statham, as he loses his wife, becomes suicidally depressed, then finds a purpose in protecting a young girl (Catherine Chan) from every organized-crime syndicate in New York City
  • Weaving a convoluted McGuffin-based plot that makes almost no sense, as one criminal syndicate has Chan memorize a complicated code for a ridiculous purpose, and then everyone else tries to grab her and get the code
  • Relying heavily on Chan and Statham to give the film personality, when neither of them have much of it to spare

Defender: Writer-director Boaz Yakin

Tone of commentary: Rehearsed, mildly professorial. Yakin put a great deal of thought into this rather silly action film, and he lays out all the subtleties in such a clear, rational, organized way that it sometimes feels like he’s reading an essay. He wanted to reverse action-film tropes as much as possible, so he discusses his thinking in avoiding big musical cues, setting the action in crowded public spaces instead of isolated warehouses, skimming over his characters’ backgrounds rather than delving into them, and keeping Statham’s doomed wife entirely offscreen. (“One of the things I hate most in action films of this type is the unnecessary role of the wife or girlfriend who you know is going to be killed, and is played by some model or actress who you can just tell has been hired to play two scenes and smile and then be killed.”) 

At other times, he comes across as though he’s teaching an entry-level film course. Without getting into mechanical specifics, he shares his thoughts on the right ways to use special effects, or effectively compose narrative. And he discusses why shooting at night is best, because while it’s “physically sickening and exhausting,” the light isn’t constantly changing, so “there’s a fixed set of challenges and circumstances.” But he also gets personal about what motivates him in film, and about his own depression, which allowed him to empathize with Statham’s character in his “lack of feeling invested in life, and a lack of feeling like there’s any point in doing anything.” He also admits that filmmaking is a terrifying, intimidating business, and he’s only gradually gotten over the urge to vomit whenever he sets foot on a set. Overall, he comes across as more colorful, smarter, and more committed to creativity than his actual movie does.

In various subtle ways, though, he comes across as a reluctant action director who felt this film was a career-necessity compromise. He admits he hadn’t considered action directing because he thought it would involve endless dull wrangling of guns, cars, and people: “You become much more of a general, rather than a captain.” He doesn’t openly pooh-pooh the genre, but there’s something elliptically resigned about the way he mentions its clichés, or his own independent productions (like Death In Love). Or his statement on how and why he made the film: “I really needed to make something that people would go see. I definitely constrained myself to certain generic conventions that I knew would enable me to get the thing green-lit, and I kind of avoided the divagations that would make it more difficult to be put together.”

What went wrong: Yakin says his budget was about a quarter of the normal budget for “most films of this type,” but quickly turns every specific complaint about something he couldn’t afford into contentment about how he got around it with innovative choices—for instance, when he could only afford about 80 extras for a restaurant shootout scene, he chose lenses and shooting angles that eliminated the empty corners of the room. Similarly, he wanted to emulate Children Of Men with long takes on the action scenes, and gripes about what a nightmare one long, 360-degree immersive shot was to coordinate, but says he at least managed to have a little fun with how it came out. And he gripes about the stringent safety guidelines that made a scene in the New York subway system “almost impossible” to shoot, but winds up talking up the subtle ways he uses special effects to help boost realism. 

The only complaint he doesn’t turn into a compliment regards a major shootout in an illegal triad-run casino. When they shot the film, most of the Asian actors and stuntmen his studio normally works with “were off making some film with Keanu Reeves about samurai,” and only about a dozen extras were available. So in the shootout, several actors get shot to death, then run into the room to get shot again “with a different haircut, or in a different hat, or a different pair of sunglasses.” Yakin says he hesitates to bring it up, but hopes it all moves fast enough that no one noticed.

Comments on the cast: Yakin feels that filmmakers really underrate Statham as a dramatic actor, leading him to underrate himself. That said, he circumspectly praises how Statham’s physicality sells fight scenes: “You have the luxury of being able to show him do things that often you have to trick with actors who don’t have his physical gifts.”

Inevitable dash of pretension: An awful lot of Yakin’s commentary could be read as pretentious, given his propensity for $2 words (after all, this is a man who casually mentions “divagations”) and his way of breaking down a fairly standard beat-’em-up in terms of compositional juxtaposition, narrative impressionism, emotional resonance, and cinematic archetypes. But mostly, he’s just revealing an honest intellect and an earnest interest in cinema. Still, once in a while he pats himself on the back a little too intently, with a line like, “Visually, this is very much a tribute to the style of filmmaking Sergio Leone does, with strong compositions and focus on characters and space.”

Also, in noting that his debut film also centered on a child in trouble, and witnessing horrible things: “I think it’s something I’m drawn to, is innocent young people being thrown into the middle of a terrible series of events over which they’re trying to gain some kind of control, maybe because that’s really what we all are in our lives.”

Commentary in a nutshell: “I guess I’m kind of a hard filmmaker to pin down, I’m a hard person for myself to pin down. Sometimes it’s seen as a plus; other times it’s seen as a weakness. I think people tend to like to know what you’re into and how to pigeonhole you and so on.”

Filed Under: Film

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