Safe … isn't.
Not for Luke Wright, an aging mixed martial arts fighter and former police officer whose life takes a tragic turn when he fails to throw a bout he was ordered by the Russian mob to lose.
And not for Mei, an 11-year-old math genius whose photographic memory has rendered her a living, breathing disk drive for Chinese gangster Uncle Han—the underworld kingpin who's kidnapped her and transplanted her from China to New York City to help him run his illicit business.
As Safe begins, Luke has just discovered his dead wife, Annie, in their bedroom, murdered by the Russians. Tormented by guilt and loss, Luke is one step off a subway platform from ending his life.
That's when he notices Mei, a small Chinese girl who's clearly scared … and clearly on the run from the same Russians who killed Annie.
In a flash, Luke is transformed from suicidal widower to zealous defender.
Mei steals onto a subway car. So do the Russians. So does Luke. Only Luke and Mei get off.
Luke slowly wins Mei's trust … and hears her story. At Uncle Han's orders, she's memorized a huge string of numbers. Analyzing them together, Luke and Mei decipher a code, a code Luke realizes could only be the combination to a safe.
And if Luke can find the safe it unlocks, maybe he can keep Mei safe.
It turns out, however, that everyone in NYC wants those numbers: the Chinese, the Russians, a group of corrupt police officers with whom Luke once worked, even the city's dirty laundry-minded mayor.
A frenzied, bullet-riddled and brutally violent chase for Mei ensues. A chase in which no one is safe … least of all moviegoers.
Luke's transformation from despairing mortal to guardian angel is inspirational. In a poignant scene—one of the film's few quiet moments—Mei asks Luke, "Why did you save me?" He responds, "I didn't save you. You saved me. I'm paying you back." Later, Mei (violently) saves Luke again (by shooting a man). More on that in "Violent Content."
Luke kills many enemies in cold blood—not a good thing, obviously. Still, the mayor rightly says of him, "Luke's a killer. But he's an honest one." Indeed, we learn that Luke played a key role in blowing the whistle on corruption within the NYPD, an act that has made him persona non grata among his on-the-take ex-team members.
By film's end, Luke is in possession of the contents of the titular safe: $30 million. But he's far more interested in protecting Mei than he is in keeping the money, all of which he returns to Uncle Han in exchange for her future safety. Luke ensures that he has leverage against not only the Chinese, but the Russians and the crooked cops should anyone try to harm Mei again.
A Russian tells Luke that if he commits suicide it will "d‑‑n your eternal soul to hell, if you believe in that kind of bulls‑‑‑." When another combatant tells Luke to "go to h‑‑‑," he retorts, "Oh, I'm going to hell alright." Luke twice suggests that a Russian whom he's captured and bound in the back of his vehicle should spend his time praying.
More seriously, a woman informs Mei that her mother has died of an illness back in China, then says, "Pray for her soul to find its way to heaven." We see stained-glass windows in a church that's been converted to a homeless shelter. An indigent man tells Luke, "Jesus loves you, man. Jesus loves you."
Luke pays a prostitute (one of several loitering on a street) to walk into a Russian nightclub with him, then pays her to leave before he starts shooting the place up. She's wearing a short skirt, and various female patrons in that establishment and a Chinese nightclub wear revealing outfits.
Once Safe's plot has been established, the violence is pretty much nonstop. One scene in particular is representative of the film as a whole: Luke has manipulated his former team of corrupt officers into helping him raid Uncle Han's casino, beneath which is the sought-after safe. To get to it, Luke and the officers must first blast their way through the ground level, which is a nightclub. Then they head downstairs to the casino, blasting away a bunch more. Finally, a level below that, they hit pay dirt. At least 40 people, including one hapless waitress, are shot by the time the firefight concludes.
And that's just one of multiple high-body count shootouts we witness.
Speaking of witnessing things, the film's most disturbing violence—both literally and philosophically—has to do with what 11-year-old Mei sees. She's forced to watch the brutal executions of three people. Two of them, including a woman who betrays Uncle Han, are shot in the head (one with a pistol, one with a shotgun). The third has his neck broken. The man doing the killing in the last instance suggests that Mei avert her eyes before he does the awful deed; but Mei's already seen so much brutality she just keeps coldly staring. "Have it your way," he says before we hear the man's neck snap.
In an early scene, a Russian kingpin threatens to torture Mei if she doesn't tell him what he wants to know. And the Chinese manipulate the poor girl by telling her that her mother will die if she doesn't use her memory skills to serve them. So it's beyond tragic but hardly a surprise at the end of the movie when Mei picks up a gun and shoots a man who's about to attack Luke. Luke finishes the job by emptying the pistol's clip into his assailant—the fourth person Mei has seen being brutally murdered.
The fate of Luke's wife is equally grim. The Russians joke in front of Luke about killing her, and one of them rubs even more salt in that wound by saying he could tell she was pregnant. Mercifully (and there's precious little mercy in this film), we don't see her body, only Luke's reaction as he stumbles out of the bedroom.
To inflict maximum emotional punishment, the Russians tell Luke they're not going to kill him, but that they'll kill any person whom he even remotely befriends. Their goal, they say, is to goad him into taking his own life. The Russians make good on their sick promise by cutting the throat of a homeless man Luke gives his shoes to at a shelter.
Equally bent on cruelty are Luke's former police teammates, led by one Capt. Wolf. When they first find Luke, they subject him to a savage beating, with officers trading kicks and landing punches as they, too, joke about how long it will be before Luke commits suicide.
As for Luke's own life-and-death ethics, they're inconsistent at best. After leading his former teammates into a vault with the promise that they can split the $30 million, for example, he kills all but one of them. And he tells the Russian crime boss, whose son he's captured, that he'll torture his prisoner but keep him alive and suffering if the father doesn't meet his demands. He also threatens to hunt down and kill the Russian's wife and children. In the end, though, Luke doesn't exact revenge on the son, releasing him instead. Likewise, he doesn't kill Capt. Wolf.
Other violence deserving mention includes Luke ramming a glass into a man's throat, using an enemy to cushion his fall from a window, using another enemy as a human shield, running over a third enemy on the street with his car (twice), ramming a man's crotch into a subway pole and shattering another man's hand after subduing him.
Crude or Profane Language
Ten uses each of the f-word and s-word. One c-word. We hear a handful each of "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑hole" and "b‑‑tard." God's name is taken in vain four or five times (once with "d‑‑n"), while Jesus' name is abused three times. Vulgar references to sexual anatomy are made. There are repeated exclamations of the racial slur "chink."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alcohol is one means Luke uses to try to cope, and we see him repeatedly swig from a steel flask. He also drinks a beer from a hotel minibar (in front of Mei). Other characters are seen drinking various kinds of alcohol in private meetings and at nightclubs.
Other Negative Elements
Fathers get a bad rap in Safe. We hear that Mei's biological father abandoned the family. Her handler (who styles himself as her father) admits to having pointed a gun at her face. And at the end of the film, Luke tells her he can't be a good father to her either—a claim she readily agrees with. "I don't need no more fathers," she says. "Will you be my friend?" she asks instead. It's a nice moment, but it also serves to underscore the horrible abuse both of them have endured.
Luke steals a car.
Any R-rated film starring Jason Statham better have the cinematic morgue on speed dial. And here the body count stacked up almost as fast as I could make hash marks in my notebook. Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir said of Safe's violence, "This is a nonstop barrage of indiscriminate killings, beatings and bone-breakings, much of it inflicted by Statham's Luke without him even changing expression."
But the quantity of mindless, expressionless violence here, as unrelenting as it is, is not Safe's biggest problem.
No, the thing that really left me reeling was watching how that violence affected the 11-year-old girl it swirled around. Three times Mei is forced to watch victims being brutally executed—one of them a woman.
It's just business, Uncle Han says after the first two executions. Just business.
By the end, the little girl is so traumatized she picks up a gun and participates in the violence herself, wounding one of the bad guys.
It's an act that saves Luke's life. Still, in an age when real-life children do sometimes kill other children with guns, watching a child actress heft a pistol and light someone up with it, however bad he may be, feels like a disturbing step in a dangerous storytelling direction.
But for Hollywood and an increasingly desensitized moviegoing audience, it is, as Uncle Han suggests, just business.