Boaz Yakin's "Safe" stars Jason Statham as a hard-luck cage fighter, but wait -- stifle that yawn and keep reading. This whip-smart, brutally funny and gleefully nasty film is one of the year's best surprises.
It's an out-of-the blue triumph for director-writer Yakin, known for mundane fare like the Denzel Washington drama "Remember the Titans," but here he comes out with both barrels blazing. It's also a return to form for Statham, whose recent track record has been mixed ("Killer Elite" was a dreary dud and "The Expendables" was 2010's lousiest hit). "Safe" marks Statham's best performance yet, a mix of his usual raw physicality and, unexpectedly, a dollop of genuine emotion. Yep, that's a real tear rolling down the man's cheek, no CGI involved.
Not that Statham pulls any punches as former NYPD cop and amateur fighter Luke Wright, who becomes the accidental guardian to young Mei (Catherine Chan), an immigrant math prodigy forced by mobsters to memorize the combination to a cash-packed safe. Thankfully, there are no tender parental moments: Mei is just an excuse for Luke to beat the borscht out of the Russians who killed his family (hence that tear), face down an old rival (a slick and slippery Anson Mount) and settle a few other scores. At any rate, Mei is no cuddly urchin, rapidly transforming from quivering schoolgirl to steely-eyed survivor.
The convoluted plot eventually spins out of control (how many mob gangs can one film have?), but Yakin keeps "Safe" sizzling with his lightning-fast direction. He's so impatient to get cracking that he frequently cuts characters off mid-sentence (often using Statham's fist). The New York City locales also give the movie an authentically down-and-dirty feel. It's amazing the director and his star took so long to find each other. They make a powerhouse team.
PLOT A low-level cage fighter and a little girl are caught in a New York City mob war. RATING R (strong violence and language)
CAST Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Anson Mount.
PLAYING AT Area theaters.
BOTTOM LINE One of the year's best surprises, a lightning-fast, down-and-dirty action flick with Statham at the top of his game.