Settling for an examination of a movie’s sociological or political significance usually represents the failure of a critic or a movie. For the critic, it means turning away from the inside of a movie and looking at the outside. As for the movie, well, it usually means there is no inside to speak of.
So let me say from the start that the most recently released Jason Statham vehicle, Safe, is more than a mere artifact. Directed with wholly unexpected vigor by Boaz Yakin (2000’s Remember the Titans), it is shot coherently and edited with intelligence – virtues in small supply in contemporary action filmmaking. Statham is, as usual, excellent, and he is supported by a uniformly talented cast. Safe offers the most elemental pleasures of the movies in fine fashion.
The Avengers is merely a technically facile combination of bearable action scenes and crude set-ups. That’s it.
Paired up, though, the two movies offer contrasting versions of modern paranoia. Paranoid filmmaking is a staple of Hollywood, with brilliant contributions from the likes of Don Siegel (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers being only the most famous) and Phil Karlson (1957’s The Brothers Rico just one among many). Safe enters the field knowingly and with some know-how. The Avengers stumbles into it, perhaps as a byproduct of its origins in a marketing department.
The superhero movie has a common paranoid template; so common it can more fairly called hackneyed. A huge army outfitted with weapons far more powerful than any of ours, attempts to conquer Earth. Luckily, a handful of brave supermen and women are there to fight for us. Crucial to the good guys’ victory is a super-secret weapon so powerful that no one – not even our side – can be trusted with it. So into the closet it goes.
The invading enemy plot is probably as old as pottery painting, but gained primacy in Hollywood during World War II. In The Avengers, it is joined by the post-Hiroshima sci-fi/monster tale birthed by Gojira/Godzilla(1954), in which radioactive fallout from explosions of atomic bombs (the ultimate weapon) rekindles the threat of utter destruction. Hiding it in the closet is a Cold War twist, an oblique reference to spies and traitors that was introduced by the temporarily mind-controlled hero.
This binding plot does not belong exclusively to moviemaking. It was put to use in another form of fiction by the George W. Bush administration. A bad guy at the head of a secret army with ultra-dangerous weapons threatened us. Although we had our closetful of weapons, we depended on superheroes (Bush, Cheney, Franks) to claim the battlefield. As with The Avengers, the Iraq War of 2003 was a big hit with the public.
So it is difficult sometimes just to laugh this stuff off. These structures are implanted in people’s heads, a function of ideology in our supposedly non- or post-ideological West.
If, as many say, today the world is divided economically and politically into a prosperous, industrialized North and impoverished, exploited South, then Safe is ideologically Southern. It has two heroes. One, Mei, is a 10-year-old Chinese girl, which demographically makes her just about the “average” person on earth. The other, Jason Statham’s character, is a framed ex-cop who has turned to “cage fighting” to make a living. He has been demoted from guardian of the American bourgeoisie to one of its clowns.
Mei is a math savant who can size up the patterns in any series of numbers, no matter how complex or long. For this reason, she’s been seized by a Chinese Triad and sent to the United States in order to further some complex scheme. The Russian mob finds out she is in New York and, to stop their Triad rival’s scheme, tries to kidnap her. Each side would rather see her dead than in the hands of the other.
Luke Wright, the former NYPD detective, sees Mei in trouble, saves her, then finds himself drawn into the criminal conflict. At the same time, he introduces his own band of villains, a group of crooked police detectives who plan to kill him.
Again, Safe is best appreciated as an excellent action movie, its elemental nature. But its political aspect is so plain that it is impossible to ignore. Armed groups from the three most militarized nations in the world – China, Russia and the U.S. – want to exploit and kill – to “use up” – the perfect representative of global oppression and an outcast from the world of wealth and power.
Mei and Wright each has a soupcon of superpowers (the math bit and fighting skills), but these are humanized insofar as possible. The whole of Safe is a rescue fantasy, but it is a fantasy whipped up from the world around it. And a far more palatable one than the reheated bilge of The Avengers.