“You’re a crazy man, but not so stupid,” says the kidnapped Chinese savant (Catherine Chen) tucked under Jason Statham’s meaty wing in Boaz Yakin’s Safe. She’s a numbers whiz with an eidetic memory to boot, reliable enough for a Triad boss to use her as a human Excel spreadsheet, but her character-assessment skills are no less impressive. From the moment he’s introduced in a cage-match arena, it’s clear that Statham’s self-preservation drive is on the wane: He fails to throw a fight on which a Russian mobster bet big, and after the mobster’s thugs kill his pregnant wife, he kneels on his dingy living-room floor, inviting them to put a bullet in his brain. Instead, the thugs conceive a more baroque punishment: They’ll watch him from a distance, killing anyone with whom he shares more than a passing relationship, dooming him to a life of isolation.
A year later, Statham has had enough alone time, and he’s ready to end it for good. But as he eyes the edge of a subway platform, he spots Chen scurrying through the crowd, fleeing the Russian mobster’s goons, and all of a sudden he has a reason to live—and kill. In addition to the financial details of the criminal empire run by James Hong, her head now contains a long string of numbers that Statham quickly decides must be a code, although they could just as aptly describe the most transparent MacGuffin since the encrypted ditty in The Lady Vanishes.
By and by, Statham is revealed to be a kind of anti-terrorist hitman, eminently familiar to New York mayor Chris Sarandon and his ass-kicking aide (and apparent lover) Anson Mount—which is no surprise, even though his character is first identified as a garbage collector. And therein lies the problem with Safe—well, that and its porous plot, monotonous editing, and lifeless one-liners. It’s hard to swallow Statham, who spent the Crank movies supercharging his last minutes of life, as a suicidal sad-sack, just as it’s painful to see him yoked to a cute little girl in an obvious attempt to soften his image. By cross-cutting the two characters’ stories—a device Yakin uses with the indiscriminate zeal of someone who’s just discovered it—Safe suggests a kinship between the displaced orphan and the man audiences know as an unstoppable killing machine. It doesn’t wash, and it doesn’t feel like Yakin expects it to. The character-building is proffered in bad faith, like every scene in Safe that doesn’t involve bloodshed. Statham can sell a punch, but not his own vulnerability.