Author: Boaz Yakin
Writer’s Potential: 4
After saving the life of a Chinese girl who was kidnapped and forced to work for a mob boss, an ex-boxer attempts to rid the girl of her enemies.
On a New York subway platform, MEI (12) waits, alone and afraid. Across the tracks is a homeless-looking man who makes her nervous. One hour earlier, Mei is shoved onto the floor by EMILE, a Russian Mafia kingpin, who accuses Mei of lying to him. He demands to know “the numbers.” One year earlier, Mei impresses her Shanghai schoolteacher with her impressive ability to quickly memorize numbers and instantly calculate complex equations in her head. Just when she’s going to be sent to a special school in Beijing, she’s kidnapped by gangsters. Meanwhile, at an Atlantic City sports arena, LUKE wins a mixed martial arts match, nearly killing his opponent in the ring. Luke is enraged that his fight fixer put him up against such a miserable opponent—Luke was supposed to take a dive, but the opponent’s incompetence made it impossible. His promoter warns Luke that the Russian mob will not be happy to learn they all lost high-profile bets on this fight. Mei is dragged to a warehouse, where she meets HAN JIAO. He explains that his daughter is a classmate of Mei’s, and that she has an extraordinary gift he would like to take advantage of, because he needs a bookkeeper who can work without leaving an electronic or paper trail. He threatens to kill her mother if she doesn’t agree to work for him. Mei has no choice.
Terrified that the mobsters might go after his family, Luke calls to warn her to leave the house. He’s too late, though—VASSILY (Emile’s son) and his hired goon CHEMYAKIN have already killed his wife and children. Against all odds, they decide to let Luke live, to wallow in a miserable existence. Vassily promises they’ll keep eyes on him and kill anyone he attempts to befriend or fall in love with, and they’ll kill him if he achieves any kind of success. The goal is for him to be miserable, and if Luke commits suicide in the meantime, all the better. Mei is sent to New York, where a crooked police captain, WOLF, sets her up with fake papers stating she is the daughter of YAO CHANG, the local crime boss. Mei quickly learns that this entire precinct is on the take, and that their prices have just gone up.
One year later, Mei is now a hardened member of Yao Chang’s syndicate. She informs him that an underground casino is losing money. Enraged, Yao Chang leads some men to the casino to beat the manager and tear the place apart. Meanwhile, Luke works at a soup kitchen and lives at a homeless shelter. At the shelter, he meets a reasonably nice guy in need of new shoes. Luke hands over his own. That night, he wakes to find the new friend has been stabbed in the throat, and his shoes have been removed. Han Jiao gives Mei a sheet of paper with a long, complex number written on it. She’s memorized it before he’s finished asking her to memorize it. He burns the paper and tells her she’ll be taken elsewhere to memorize another, similar number. Luke is harassed by some cops, who it turns out recognize him from his pre-homeless life. They beat the shit out of him, laughing the whole time. On her way to learn the second number, a Russian convoy runs the car she’s in off the road and kidnaps her. She’s dragged to Emile’s office. He orders her to tell him the number, but she pretends to not speak English. The police surround Emile’s warehouse. This distracts the mobsters enough that nobody notices Mei has left until it’s too late. Turns out, Yao Chang sent the police to get Mei. He negotiates a higher percentage with Wolf, but when they bust in, she’s gone. Yao Chang thinks Wolf has screwed him.
Mei arrives on the subway platform from the opening scene. Luke is revealed as the homeless person who creeped her out. He’s suicidal, ready to finally jump on the tracks—when he sees Mei, fragile, haunted, and pursued by both police and Russian killers. She hops onto a train, and the Russians follow. So does Luke. Chemyakin recognizes Luke. Luke takes one of the killers guns, then kills everyone on the train, including a surprised Chemyakin. Luke tries to console Mei, but she runs out seconds before the doors shut, trapping Luke inside the train. Luke goes to the back and dives off the moving train, then follows Mei out of the subway station. He sees police and overhears them talking about finding the girl. Mei runs through the downtown streets when she’s approached by some of the detectives who beat up Luke earlier. Luke beats them up once again and flees in a stolen car. The police and Russian mob pursue the car in a long chase. Luke narrowly manages to elude them.
Wolf, Han Jiao, and Emile are all angry to find that their people had Mei and lost her. Luke has stolen the wallet of one of the men he killed. He and Mei buy new clothes to blend in, then check into an upscale hotel, thinking their pursuers would not think they’d stay at such a place. Unfortunately, the Triad has placed a tracking device in Mei’s cell phone. Han Jiao dispatches men to retrieve her. In their hotel room, Mei wonders why Luke saved him. Luke tells Mei she saved him, and now he has to pay back the favor by getting everyone off her back. In order to do that, he needs details. Mei doesn’t want to divulge anything, but she starts to warm up to Luke and eventually explains her role as Yao Chang’s bookkeeper, that she was asked to memorize a long number and on her way to memorize a different long number when the Russians kidnapped her. Luke asks about the number. She says it was an odd number because it was very long, but the numerals 3 and 7 appeared too frequently to be random. Luke determines that the code isn’t numbers—it’s words, like “left” and “right”: a safe combination.
Yao Chang leads a team through the hotel. They threaten guests, and when the guests don’t cooperate, they start shooting. Luke and Mei hear the cacophony and flee. Luke’s embarrassed that he’s so out of practice, he didn’t anticipate the tracer. Luke leads Mei through the hotel, and after a number of fistfights and gunfights, Yao Chang manages to get Mei back. The cops arrive, looking for Luke. He has no choice but to flee through a rear entrance. He carjacks a man, drives over a few blocks, and hops in a cab. He’s angry at himself for losing Mei. Luke has also stolen the cell phone of a dead killer. He dials one of the recent calls and speaks to the man on the other end in flawless Russian, impersonating the killer. He realizes he’s talking to Vassily. Luke claims to have the number and asks to meet Vassily. Vassily gives a location. Mayor TRAMELLO learns from Wolf that Luke is in New York City. He’s petrified. He explains to Wolf that, after 9/11, the Vice President hired a ruthless assassin to kill anyone they deemed a “terrorist threat”—only most of them weren’t terrorists. They were New York gangsters, and Tramello, the Vice President, and his cronies split the millions left behind by the fallen kingpins. Someone in the government found out what they were up to, so they quietly eliminated the “program.” Wolf wants to know why someone with Luke’s connections ended up a third-rate prizefighter. Tramello doesn’t know or care. His assistant, ROSEN, tells Tramello about the gunfight at the hotel. Tramello orders Wolf to close every exit out of Manhattan and make sure Luke and Mei don’t get out of the city.
Mei reassures Han Jiao and Yao Chang that she didn’t tell Luke a thing. He isn’t sure he believes her, so he calls someone who can help—Rosen, who tells them to change their meeting location. Luke shows up at the bar where Vassily is supposed to be and immediately starts killing Russian mobsters. Luke beats Vassily to a pulp and shoves him into a car. He calls Emile and explains he knows about the safe and wants to know what’s in it. Emile tells him $30 million. Luke asks what’s in the second safe, the one Mei didn’t get the combination to. Emile says, “Something worth $30 million.” Luke orders Emile to tell him where the safe is in exchange for Vassily’s life. Luke calls together Captain Wolf and the detectives who beat the hell out of him. After showing them a tortured, beaten Vassily, Luke explains that Han Jiao has $30 million stored in Chinatown’s biggest casino, hidden from the police so they won’t take a cut. He tells them the Triads plan to pay Tramello $30 million for the combination to another safe. He offers to cut them all in on the loot if they help him rob the casino, making it look like a raid while pocketing the money. They agree.
The detectives charge into the casino, most of them dying in the epic gunfight while Luke opens the safe and steals the money. The remaining detectives attempt to betray him, so Luke kills them. When other cops show up, Wolf explains it was a raid that went bad. Luke takes Wolf’s phone and calls Tramello, threatening him until he gets Rosen’s number. Luke threatens to burn the money if Rosen doesn’t tell him what’s in the other safe. Rosen tells him it’s a disc containing all the names and money trails leading back to the Vice President’s scheme. Since Luke has the money, Rosen threatens to stop without giving the number to the Triad. Luke orders him to retrieve Mei. Rosen shows up to the exchange and kills everyone except Mei. Luke breaks into the mayor’s mansion and threatens Tramello at gunpoint until he gives him the disc. He does so, reluctantly. Luke knocks him out and meets with Rosen, who is going to exchange the money for Mei. Rosen tries to double-cross Luke, so Luke shoots him. Luke gives Wolf $50,000 to keep him quiet, then returns the remainder of the $30 million to Han Jiao. Mei encloses a letter saying that she and Luke are not to be touched—and if they are, Mei will expose all their secrets. Luke and Mei place copies of the disc in safe deposit boxes all over New York City, to be sure the information will get out if they’re killed. Mei wonders if they’re safe.
Safe makes a vain attempt to turn a basic shoot-’em-up action into a thoughtful, twisty thriller. The writers aren’t up for the challenge, resulting in a script that combines unimaginative action sequences with bland characters (particularly protagonist Luke) and attempts to up the ante with cheap shock value. As written, it merits a pass.
The script starts on a bad note, with a horrible and needless attempt at flashback structuring to bring audiences right into the action before going back a year to show how the characters ended up where they did. There’s no mystery or intrigue to these opening scenes before it flashes back a year—in fact, the script catches up to those scenes after about 10 pages. Worse than that, Luke’s “one year ago” flashback contains a truly awful scene that makes virtually no sense, leading him down a path that makes even less sense in light of the fact that he’s eventually revealed to be a secret master assassin: the Russians kill his family but decide to let him live, in the hopes that he’ll commit suicide? The writers try to make this seem like poetic justice, but mostly it’s just a stupid excuse to keep Luke alive while attempting to give a lazy “revenge” motivation to his actions later in the script.
Once the mysteries are set up in the first act, Luke and Mei are smashed together in the second, which splits its time evenly between bluntly explaining all those mysteries and dull action sequences. Even if these action sequences had any sort of novelty or innovation (which they don’t—every single second of action has already been seen in at least a half-dozen cheesy action flicks), it would be undermined by the fact that each individual action set-piece overstays its welcome by at least five pages. As for the on-the-nose explanations of why everything is happening: the writers do make the convoluted conspiracy clear, but they’re not up to the task of making it really believable that Luke feels any sort of kinship or bond with Mei. This is the sort of script that tries to get away with flat-out bad dialogue like, “I didn’t save you—you saved me,” instead of doing the hard work of forging an actual relationship between the characters.
The third act is an unsatisfying mess. It’s not much more than Luke kidnapping the major players in the Triad, Russian Mafia, and police force and forcing them to give him information, which they do without him having to apply much pressure. Leading it back to the mayor of New York City, who’s in bed with the unnamed “Vice President” who was in power when 9/11 occurred, adds an attempt at a thought-provoking political statement that just comes across as trite. Even though the Vice President is painted as the mastermind of the conspiracy, there’s no showdown with him. Instead, the showdown is with a bland mayor’s aide.
Perhaps some of the goofiness of the story could have been redeemed through its characters, but as mentioned, Luke’s motivation for everything he does—ostensibly an attempt to save Mei—comes across as extremely thin. Even when it eventually becomes clear that he also wants revenge against the NYPD, the Mayor’s Office, and the Russian mob, he comes across like a mindless psychopath. Trying to show his humanity by having it all be for a little girl is just cheap manipulation, and not very effective at that. On the other hand, Mei’s biggest problem is her age: there are only two reasons (both bad) to make her 12 years old: the first is the deplorably sleazy shock value of watching adult gangsters beat on her, and the second is the treacly attempt at showing Luke’s more than a government-programmed assassin. She could easily be 10 or even 20 years older without affecting the story much, and it wouldn’t change the story much. Every other character—of which there are many—is pretty much an interchangeable villain: slimy and pragmatic, but decidedly uninteresting when there are 10 guys who have the exact same reactions to every situation.
This is a terrible script, and nothing short of a page-one rewrite will change that.