Safe

Safe

Runtime 95 minutes.
Not for children.

From l, Catherine Chan and Jason Statham in “Safe.”

When you pay your money to see a Jason Statham movie, you are paying to see Jason dispatch lots of bad guys single-handed. That’s what you get here, in spades.

Mei (newcomer Catherine Chan) is a ten-year-old math prodigy who is brutally taken from her family in China to be a tool for the Chinese mafia. Luke Wright (Statham) is a down and out fighter, former NYPD cop, whose family has been murdered and his life destroyed by the Russian mafia. As he’s contemplating suicide in the subway, he encounters Mei who is clearly in trouble, and becomes her protector against all the bad people in New York who need her, and that includes just about everyone who lives there. The result is that when the movie ends, it’s hard to believe that Jason has left anyone alive in The Big Apple.

The triad boss, Han Jiao (well played by James Hong), is a vicious manipulator who uses Mei with no regard for her welfare. Equally cold is Mei’s guardian, Quan Chang (Reggie Lee), who also has no feelings for poor little Mei.

Representing the NYPD is Luke’s old boss, NYPD Police Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), who is just as unsympathetic as Jiao and Chang. What makes this movie so much fun is that the bad guys are really hateful, which makes their comeuppance from Luke all the more desirable.

Statham is more than just an action hero. He shows admirable range here in displaying the depths to which Luke has descended. But as the movie progresses and as Luke gets into the action, the joy of life returns to him as he risks it all to save Mei. This isn’t really a revenge movie à la Charles Bronson’s Death Wish films. In those, Charles was solely out to wreak vengeance. Here, Luke has accepted his fate to have his life ruined by the vicious criminals who killed his family until he meets Mei and realizes that it’s up to him to rescue her. That in the process he also gets back at the Russians who killed his family is just icing on the cake.

Ably written and directed by Boaz Yakin, in his first try at an action film, this is almost non stop action. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but the tension drives the film and the stunts are impressive, including lots of fine car chases.

Bernie

Runtime 104 minutes.
OK for children.

From l, Shirley Maclaine and Jack Black in “Bernie.”

This is based on a true story inspired by an article in Texas Monthly about the town of Carthage, Texas, generally, and two of his residents, Marjorie Nugent and Bernie Tiede. Director Richard Linklater, whose last film Me and Orson Welles (2009) was one of the three best films I saw that year, has once again hit a home run.

Tiede (Jack Black) is an assistant funeral director who was so nice he became one of Carthage’s most beloved residents, teaching Sunday school, singing in the church choir, and always being there when ever anyone needed help.

Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), on the other hand, was Carthage’s most hated resident. She had a malign, cruel personality. Despite this, Bernie befriended her.

What happened next is told by the actual residents of Carthage in documentary style, cutting back and forth between Black and MacLaine playing the roles of Tiede and Nugent. Eventually the town’s ambitious District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) becomes involved.

It’s not often that McConaughey gets third billing in a film, since he is one of Hollywood’s more attractive leading men. However McConaughey has spent most of his career in inferior films, relying on his incomparable smile and charm to get by. Here he finds himself in a real film that requires real acting and he lives up to his promise. We can only hope that his days of insubstantial romantic comedies are over. Not that all romantic comedies are “insubstantial.” Well directed and well written romantic comedies require as much acting talent as Shakespeare. McConaughey has found him stuck in romantic comedies that are neither well directed nor well-written.

Black and MacLaine both give Oscar–quality performances. Hereto for Maclaine has generally relied on her beauty and charm. Here she is pictured as an ugly, shrunken, old shrew, and she pulls it off beautifully.

Black gives the best performance of his career as the sexually ambiguous funeral director who finally can’t take it anymore and finds himself accused of a heinous crime.

While all three stars give marvelous performances, the best performances in the film are by the actual townspeople of Carthage who knew Bernie. While I was watching the film, I fully believed that these people were actors because they were so natural. However, truth be told, all the townspeople are the actual townspeople who were in Carthage during the time Bernie was the assistant funeral director. This adds enormous verisimilitude to the film. Further, the outtakes under the closing credits show that Black spent some time with the real Bernie.

This is one of the more entertaining movies I’ve seen this year.

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