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Holding out for a hero? Statham gets the job done

Safe (15)

HHH

Dir: Boaz Yakin

With: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan

Running time: 94 minutes

STRICTLY between ourselves, it is said that, prior to storming Bin Laden's lair, US special forces put dabs of Jason Statham's sweat behind their ears, Chanel No 5-style. He's that hard. Those chromium qualities, plus some soft-centre stuff for the ladies in the audience, are to the fore in this daft but dangerously enjoyable action movie.

Statham is an eye of the nuclear storm kind of actor. No matter how much hooey is going on around him, he always walks out of the dust cloud at the end with his dignity intact. True to form, in Boaz Yakin's New York-set film there are heroic amounts of nonsense to wade through (at several points my notes contain a single word, "Eh?"), but Statham, through sheer presence and with the help of some terrific editing, holds everything together.

The Lock, Stock ... and Transporter star plays ex-cage fighter Luke Wright. Luke, we learn from early scenes, has had some atrocious luck lately. He's so down he's out of the game completely. Living from hostel to hostel, this is a man determined to shut himself off from the world as much as possible so as never to be hurt again. Aww.

The sight of a terrified girl fleeing from gangsters is the kick up the backside Luke needs to get back into the slugging and protecting business. Ten-year-old Mei needs a hero. Luke needs a purpose in life. Sounds like a combo made in action movie heaven (Statham should know: he and Luc Besson used a similar set-up in Transporter 2).

Maths genius Mei is running from a combination of Russian mobsters, triads and bent cops because of a numerical formula she holds in her head. It's the key to something that will be revealed later, but don't worry about sweating the details too much. That way a migraine lies, and where would be the fun in that?

Yakin, the writer of Prince of Persia and director of The Rookie, keeps the story rattling along like a New York subway train. There are lurches and spills galore but the speed remains satisfyingly fast. Who knows where the train is ultimately heading? There's plenty to look at during the ride.

There is the sight, for instance, of veteran actor James Hong (once of Blade Runner) doing his thing as the sinister grandfatherly type who is using Mei's brain as his own personal notepad.

There's Mei herself, played by Catherine Chan, a young actor with the sang-froid of a dozen adults. There are the various Russian mobster types who left Central Casting so fast they have scorch marks on their cheap leather jackets. There's New York, too, in all its chaotic, grubby, patchwork glory. Though a few fancy-schmancy places make an appearance, usually because the plot requires them to be trashed, Yakin's New York is straight out of the Mean Streets 70s.

Then, of course, there is Statham himself. Safe takes the British actor beyond familiar territory. Not too far: he doesn't become a pinko liberal social worker or, heaven forbid, a Liberal Democrat. But he does lift the lid a little on his emotions, particularly in the scenes with Mei, to show a more tender, fatherly side. That's just the start of the revelations. At one point there's even a moistening around the eye area.

At heart, though, Luke is still the same familiar Statham character with his fists of fury and headbutts from hell. The fight scenes, like Yakin's New York, are fast and dirty and all the better for it. One thing about Statham: up close and in the middle of a fight, he looks the real deal, jabbing and kicking as if to mixed martial arts born. Add to this the editing skills of Frederic Thoraval (Taken, District 13), and the result should satisfy even the heartiest appetite for crunched bones and socked jaws. It's hugely violent, but the carnage borders on comic book, hence the 15 certificate.

One of Luke's favourite phrases in the movie is "old school", which is precisely where this movie graduated from. With Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds) as producer, Safe goes for a retro mix of glam and gore, cool and naff (some of the testosterone-injected dialogue will have you shrieking with girly laughter), tough and tender.

Then there is Statham's character. Luke is the acceptable face of political incorrectness. He sees a bad guy, he lays him out like an undertaker. Never mind all that human rights stuff: Luke is Judge Dredd and jury in a nice suit, the Jack Reacher of film (at least until Tom Cruise takes on the role of Lee Child's vigilante hero in One Shot, out this December).

For now, though, no-one can beat Statham when it comes to a hard-as-nails hero with a strawberry creme centre. Consider your position safe, Mr S.

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