Jason Statham as Luke Wright and Catherine Chan as Mei in SAFE, a film by Boaz Yakin. Photo credit: John Baer. Picture courtesy Lionsgate. All rights reserved.
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Opened: 04/27/2012 Wide
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Trailer: Click for trailer
Rated: R for for strong violence throughout, and for language.
A second-rate cage fighter on the mixed martial arts circuit, Luke Wright lives a numbing life of routine beatings and chump change...until the day he blows a rigged fight. Wanting to make an example of him, the Russian Mafia murders his family and banishes him from his life forever, leaving Luke to wander the streets of New York destitute, haunted by guilt, and tormented by the knowledge that he will always be watched, and anyone he develops a relationship with will also be killed.
But when he witnesses a frightened twelve-year-old Chinese girl, Mei, being pursued by the same gangsters who killed his wife, Luke impulsively jumps to action...and straight into the heart of a deadly high-stakes war. Mei, he discovers, is no ordinary girl, but an orphaned math prodigy forced to work for the Triads as a "counter." He discovers she holds in her memory a priceless numerical code that the Triads, the Russian mob and a corrupt faction of the NYPD will kill for.
Realizing he's the only person Mei can trust, Luke tears a swath through the city's brutal underworld to save an innocent girl's life...and perhaps even redeem his own.
Lionsgate and IM Global present in association with Automatik a Lawrence Bender production in association with Trigger Street Productions and 87Eleven, Inc. Written and directed by Boaz Yakin.
About the Production
Action star Jason Statham has built a legion of enthusiastic fans for his charismatic portrayals of hard-boiled men in favorites like The Transporter series, The Italian Job and The Expendables. But audiences will experience a new depth of his talent in writer/director Boaz Yakin's new action-thriller, SAFE. Statham brings a gritty, haunted intensity to Luke Wright, a former NYPD cop cum second-rate cage fighter whose wife has been murdered and his life destroyed by the Russian mob. With nothing to live for, Luke finds himself on a subway platform, staring at an oncoming train and contemplating suicide, a moment of hollow-eyed despair that Statham inhabits fully.
"Luke is probably in the lowest position he could ever be in his life," explains Statham. "He's about to commit suicide. He's ready to throw in the towel and there's nothing worth living for. That's how we first meet him."
But before Luke can end his misery, a chance encounter changes the course of his life and sends him down a path of brutal violence...and possibly redemption. His unlikely savior is a ten-year-old Chinese math prodigy named Mei. Kidnapped by Triad boss Han Jiao for her flawless numerical memory, Mei has been brought to America and forced to act as the organization's "human ledger," thereby eliminating the need for incriminating financial records of any kind. But the information Mei holds in her memory is also coveted by the Russian mob, and a botched abduction attempt sends her on the run...and right into Luke's path.
"Mei actually saves me," says Statham. "I won't explain how or we'd give too much away, but she's being chased by the Russian mafia, the same guys who are responsible for murdering my wife."
SAFE's writer/director sees the film as a relative rarity among action movies: an all-out genre piece that is powered by a full-blooded emotional core. "This is a film about a guy who has lost everything in his life," says Yakin, "and through this chance encounter, he finds a reason to live again. This little girl is in need and this broken character finds a way to help her."
From the project's inception, Yakin and his producer, Lawrence Bender, agreed Statham was the actor who could embody Luke's gritty physicality and also capture the depth of his grief. "I've always been so impressed with how dynamic Jason is, what a big presence he has on screen," says Bender. "He has this unwavering authenticity to his characters."
"This is a film where Jason is in his wheel house," adds Yakin. "He plays a tough guy, and with the stunts and the action he's meticulous to a crazy degree. But this is a much more vulnerable character than he usually plays. He really went for it and I think that's going to surprise people."
"Jason's very focused, very concentrated in what he's doing," adds Bender. "At this moment in the story, Luke is completely empty inside, just blank, a black hole. His pain is so severe that he can't even allow himself to feel it. Jason portrays that void brilliantly."
Early in his career, Boaz Yakin made a name for himself as an action writer -- he wrote the screenplays for The Punisher (1989) and Clint Eastwood's The Rookie -- but he'd never directed an action movie himself. After making the sobering, emotionally exhausting drama Death In Love in 2008, Yakin was ready to try his hand at a genre piece. "I wanted to make something that had a broader appeal, so I thought, 'Let me see if I can write one of these scripts the way I used to write when I was starting out.' As the story developed, I started to identify with the main character quite a bit, the process of pulling himself out of a dark place, putting one foot in front of the other and finding a reason to live and connect to life again."
For Yakin, SAFE's vivid central relationship between Luke and Mei is the driving force of the film. "The idea of directing an action film was interesting, but unless there's a strong emotional motivation for the action, it can be a lot like directing traffic," admits the director. "I wanted every action scene in this film to come from an emotional need in the character."
When he had finished writing the script, Yakin approached his friend and colleague, Lawrence Bender, with whom Yakin had made his debut feature, Fresh, and the Renee Zellweger-starring A Price Above Rubies. While he and Yakin hadn't worked together in over ten years, Bender was eager to find something to rekindle their partnership. "Boaz has a great style as a writer and he's a wonderful director," says Bender. "So when he told me he wanted to make an action film that had an intense emotional through line, I couldn't wait to read the script." Bender, who has also produced some of the most original and successful action films in history, including Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2 and Inglourious Basterds, immediately took on the project and approached Statham with an offer.
Finding the right 10-year-old actress to play Mei was the task of casting director Douglas Aibel, who worked with Yakin on Fresh and already demonstrated his extraordinary gift for casting children in films such as Signs, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Squid and the Whale.
Catherine Chan walked in on the first day of auditions and made a lasting impression on the filmmakers. "We auditioned many, many girls," recalls Bender. "Catherine had the right amount of vulnerability but the right amount of fire, too. Her character moves from innocent to depressed to 'Let's do this!' and that's a lot of personality for a twelve-year-old."
"It was exciting; because it was my first time auditioning for a real movie," remembers Chan, who is appearing in her debut feature film. "I was a little nervous, but I gave it my best shot. I was so happy when I got the part."
"One of the charming aspects of working with Catherine is she's only twelve, so she doesn't have the baggage, all the layers of falseness that you can build as you spend years being an actor," says Statham. "She has such purity. She's not self-conscious in any way so she brings something really fresh. It was a pleasure to be around."
Yakin agrees. "She doesn't feel like an 'actor;' she feels like a real kid. She's very powerful in her stillness. For me that's one of the most important things: to find kids who can act when they're not acting. Listening is the hardest thing you can do as an actor."
Veteran actor James Hong plays Han Jiao, the Triad boss who uses Mei as the guardian of his most valuable assets. "I was extremely glad that Boaz chose me to do this role," says Hong. "It was a challenge, as Mandarin is not my first language. But upon seeing footage of the film, I was very happy with my performance. Han Jiao comes across as a mean Triad boss, but with a very business-like sense of humor."
"It was important for the film that you feel an almost mythical presence to the part of Han Jiao," says Yakin. "I needed someone who felt a little bit bigger than life, and James really brought that."
Quan Chang, Mei's guardian, is a slick Triad gangster -- played by Reggie Lee -- who adopts Mei to make her legal in the US. Lee explains, "After a year of fostering her in the US, my character begins to develop a fatherly instinct for her. At the same time, I still have to fulfill my job, which involves using her in very dangerous situations to get what Han Jiao wants. I've done action films before, but never one with a character that had as much depth and nuance as Chang. Credit goes to Boaz Yakin for making the characters in this action film have so many colors and emotional challenges."
"Reggie is a very talented actor," reports Yakin. "He would walk on the set and start doing his scene and everyone would just stop what they were doing to watch him."
On the run from the Triads and the Russian mob, Luke reaches out to his old boss and nemesis, NYPD Police Captain Wolf, played by Robert John Burke. Wolf, however, has his own interests in mind. "Captain Wolf is Captain Nefarious, really," chuckles Burke. "Wolf doesn't feel he's gotten his due. His City Police check isn't cutting it any longer so he's going do whatever it takes to supplement it. He cleverly plays one side against the other until Luke gets the last word."
Burke raves about his experience working with Statham. "He's a consummate professional -- smart, funny, sharp, creative, hard-working, and does not settle for mediocrity. He is gifted and extremely generous. He brings more energy to a scene than any ten actors put together."
Rounding out the supporting cast is veteran stage and film actor Chris Sarandon as corrupt Mayor Tramello, who holds the classified information for which the Triads are willing to pay $30 million in cash. "Chris has done so much great work in his career," says Yakin. "This film's inspirations are definitely The Seven-Ups and The French Connection, and Chris did some great work in a few of those movies. So I liked bringing his energy to the film."
With the cast in place, the filmmakers began to tackle all of the logistical challenges that Yakin's action-packed script posed to the production. Recalls Bender, "As we started to work together, it became clear that Boaz had some really original ideas about the action. His storyboards were amazing."
In an effort to give the film a unique feel, Yakin chose to film most of the choreographed action in long takes rather than resorting to edits to create action effects. Recalls Statham, "It's a very difficult thing to do because there are so many elements that can go wrong. But Boaz had the tenacity to get it right and it was just brilliant. Some of the sequences that we did were quite lengthy."
Yakin relied heavily on the expertise of stunt coordinators Chad Stahelksi, Brad Martin and J.J. "Loco" Perry from the company, 8711 Action Design. Says Yakin, "They came up with new and different ways of doing things that really worked and were unexpected. They would go off and shoot test scenes and pre-visualizations and take our ideas and bring them to another level. The collaboration was fantastic. The action is really good. I don't think there's anyone better at it than they are."
Statham, who is certainly no stranger to action filmmaking, agrees. "Chad, J.J. and Brad all come with such amazing experience. They know what they're doing and have spent years going through every type of martial art, every aspect of choreography, all the dangerous stunts. They live and breathe what they do. Working alongside them was very inspiring."
Crafting the look of the film involved many hours of discussion between Yakin, Bender, Director of Photography Stefan Czapsky, ASC and Production Designer Joseph Nemec III. "We looked at some '70s New York films together," says Yakin. "I like to use very long and wide lenses so that the film sort of bounces back and forth between a very intimate look and a more revealing look, but not give that comfortable middle ground."
"We were often working with more than one camera," Yakin continues, "and Stefan had a way of getting the second camera to tell the story as well as the first camera. I work with a very specific shot list that I put together before filming, and Stefan was able to take the ideas from that shot list and bring something else to it. A different look or take on it. It was extremely effective. He is really, really, really good and the film looks great."
Production Designer Nemec was faced with the challenge of creating a world that is textured and gritty and evokes New York as it appears in the films of the '70s and early '80s. "There's a certain quality about the film The French Connection that Boaz liked, and we wanted to keep that in mind," explains Nemec. "We took out a lot of the greens, a lot of the blues and kept things more browns and tans and creams."
Though the film is set in New York, filming took place in both New York and Philadelphia. "We shot all our exteriors in New York," explains Yakin. "We wanted to shoot everything in New York, but it's difficult. The streets are hard to control and the people are a little jaded with film crews working here. But the Mayor and the city of Philadelphia went out of their way to accommodate us. They would let us shut down streets. They were always asking us what they could do to help as opposed to making us feel we were a burden. Shooting there turned out to be great and I'm grateful for the help they gave us."
One of the largest sets was the Triad's casino, which was built inside of Girard College. "We used one of the buildings and some of the existing structure that was there, and basically built a stage set inside that," says Nemec. "It's an illegal underground gambling establishment that kind of looks like a speakeasy. Back in the days of Prohibition, they'd have hidden clubs that you would come in through a very non-descript entrance, but once inside it was a nice place."
Other locations included Luke Wright's home, which was filmed in Holmes, PA, a casino in Bensalem, PA, and The Bellevue Hotel in downtown Philadelphia. The Bloomfield Estate in Villanova filled in for New York's mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion.
Statham particularly enjoyed working in New York, which is Yakin's hometown. "We had such a good time working there," says the actor. "It's Boaz's city and he knows it so well. One of the best experiences you can have as an actor is to work with a writer/director. There's no substitute for that because they're constantly enhancing the script, taking out what doesn't work. It's just honed and honed hour by hour and you only get that collaboration with a guy who's in control of his own material."
Academy Award®-winning costume designer Ann Roth impressed Yakin with her strong, character-driven designs. "Ann was a revelation," says the director. "I've worked with some really good costume designers in the past. But when Ann costumes someone, that costume contributes to the character's inner-life. I've never quite seen someone do it the way she does it. An actor that would do good work in rehearsal would come in wearing her costume and suddenly it was -- bang -- that's the character. I was just knocked out by her work."
When production was completed, Bender and Yakin approached Frederic Thoraval to edit the film. "Frederic edited Taken," says Yakin. "I saw it and what really impressed me was the editing. Frederic has a way with editing not just action, but pace and a combination of real French New Wave looseness, jump-cutting and all that, with an eye on keeping the emotional focus on what's going on that I just love. I would work with Frederic again in a heartbeat."
The director was equally thrilled to have the prolific Mark Mothersbaugh on board to compose the score. "I would never have thought of Mark for this film," admits Yakin. "He's known for his charm, lightness and humor. He's done all of Wes Anderson's movies."
But Mothersbaugh was eager to try his hand at a different film genre and even offered to compose a temp score to prove he was the man for the job. "Boaz gave me a script and I looked at some scenes. We talked a little conceptually about it and I went and did some sketches for it -- music sketches that I recorded in my studio on electronic instruments, samplers, guitars, things like that."
Yakin and Bender were immediately convinced upon hearing Mothersbaugh's work. "The music was just really exciting," says Yakin. "Mark really proved that he had the range." Mothersbaugh created a final score that mixed orchestral sounds "reminiscent of '70s chase movies" with contemporary elements. "I've worked with a lot of directors and I found Boaz to be really refreshing," Mothersbaugh says. "It's nice when you find a director who knows what he wants to hear. He was always very enthusiastic and he brought a lot to the project. He's someone I hope I get to work with again."
Now that post-production is complete, writer/director Boaz Yakin hopes the final film will readily satisfy action fans while also offering audiences a central character they can relate to deeply. "Luke's journey is an extreme one, but it's one that I think people will recognize and understand and hopefully invest in," says the director. "When you have that kind of connection with the central character, then the stakes are higher, the action hits harder. If I manage to make that happen, I'm happy."