CINEMA: News Weekly
Compelling film's contrast of good and evil
, June 9, 2012
Safe (rated MA) is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Safe is a Jason Statham movie. ’Nuff said, end of review.…
But what is a “Jason Statham” movie? Why is such a movie worthy of review in such an august journal as News Weekly? These movies are masterful exercises in style, not style over substance, but style superbly supporting substance. These movies excel in their cinematic and yarn-spinning craft. They may lack in intellectual and philosophical sophistication, and even coherence at times, but this allows them to be centred on a more simple substance.
These films are not trying to redefine morality or reinvent society according to a particular political agenda. They depict old-fashioned values in new-fangled ways — it may even be claimed that the values they depict are of a Stone Age sort, where death is a constant companion, and evil must be punished, as do so many of the great myths and legends from the past.
A comparison can be made with the mass of popular yarns composed throughout the ages. Think of the penny dreadfuls, and the detective stories, of which G.K. Chesterton was so fond. He called them the chivalric romances of the modern age, and equated them with fairy tales, of which he said: their aim is not to claim dragons exist, but that they can be beaten.
Theses yarns have a technological incarnation in the popular cinema, the B-movies and films noir of the ’30s and ’40s. Think of John Huston’s legendary The Maltese Falcon (1941), with Humphrey Bogart, that created a genre and defined a generation. Or Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. It has some of the most complex and awe-inspiring long takes in cinema, but is a mere “genre” piece, only alluding to intellectual depth, rather than drowning in it.
Then there is the ultimate pot-boiler, a work of astonishing popularity, perverse sexuality and graphic violence and corruption — Hamlet, by one Mr William Shakespeare.
The point in these comparisons is to emphasise that a simple, popular story seemingly lacking in depth, may actually be an enduring masterpiece that has much to say about the human condition. Or it might not.
However, at the very least, in order for it to succeed, it must recognise that condition and provide a response that resonates with the masses — masses who, by and large, are much more moral, if uninformed, than the “intellectual elites”.
This brings us back to the taut and compelling film, Safe. It concerns a young Chinese girl, Mei (beautifully played by Catherine Chan), who has a brilliant mathematical mind and is forced to work for the old-school Chinese crime boss, Han Jiao (James Hong, menacing and sophisticated like all good villains), who doesn’t trust computers, but needs a way to keep track of his empire.
In addition there is Luke Wright (Jason Statham being himself — taciturn and smouldering), a cage-fighter whose family is slaughtered by the Russian mafia because they lost a lot of money on a match that went wrong. The Russians’ depravity is shown in their ultimatum to Wright, that they won’t kill him, but they’ll kill anyone he gets close to, until he can’t take it any more and kills himself.
Just when Wright is about to jump in front of a moving train, he spies the Russians chasing Mei, who’s been brought to America to act as “accountant” for the Chinese operations there, saves her and all hell breaks loose.
There are also crooked cops, a secret code to something big and a lot of complex back story. It results in a great many car chases, shoot-outs, grisly deaths and drama, making it much more of a bloke’s movie than something to take the ladies to, and certainly not something for the kids.
There is, however, a running theme of salvation and redemption, of heaven and hell, and religion that makes the movie distinct from Statham’s other efforts. And the religion is not mocked, but treated as something real and normal — although, admittedly, Russian mobsters aren’t the best ads for icons and the telling of beads.
It is cinematically and stylistically where this film excels. Not a frame is wasted, not a shot gratuitous. Everything has a point within a wider context of showing character and propelling the narrative along. If only the intellectuals could make such elegant films, then they might not be seen as such pretentious wastes of time, space and money.
This is not a nice film, nor is it a family-friendly one, nor is it one that will appeal to everyone. But it is superbly made, and it reinforces a particular moral order of good and evil that resonates — the very order that needs defending in a world where the drive is to pretend such things don’t exist, and no matter what we do and with whom, we are safe.