Safe by Boaz Yakin
J.J. Abrams didn’t invent the cliché, but he certainly did perfect it. You know how every other episode of Alias opened in medias res, and Syd seemed like she was about to get taken down for good. Smash cut to: Credit Dauphine, 48 hours earlier, and the first half of the episode builds to that moment, while the second half expands on it. Abrams shows frequently overuse this device—he even used it, albeit effectively, in Mission: Impossible III—and their popularity (among creative types, moreso than “the masses”) led to widespread abuse of a flawed narrative device.
Nowhere have I seen it more poorly used than in Safe, an unmitigated disaster brought to you by the same writer as the equally sloppy Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Boaz Yakin, whose name is more entertaining than much of his career output (low blow, sorry), managed to craft an in medias res opening, a “how they got here” flashback, and the resolution to the opening in the space of the first ten pages. You might think, “Wow! Breathless action!” If you read it, you’ll think, “Wow! Where’s the suspense?” Isn’t the basic narrative premise of this type of opening to keep the audience in suspense? At the start, we get to see the metaphorical bomb, which should leave us guessing at every turn. Is that bagboy at the grocery store the guy who’s going to stick him with a paralyzing drug and dump him off at the shady Chinese chemist’s dirty lab?
After a dizzying opening that barely makes sense even after the flashbacks, Safe rewinds a year to show Luke’s (Jason Statham) motivation: for unclear reasons (until later), the Russian mob kills his entire family in front of him and hopes the subsequent guilt and despair will cause him to commit suicide. They’re all surprised when Luke—who, by the way, is a master assassin—decides to take revenge instead of taking his own life.
This should be a great dumb-action-movie twist. You know me: I love dumb action movies. However, I find it personally offensive when a dumb action movie doesn’t know what it is and unsuccessfully sets its aspirations higher than its genre will allow. Such is the case with Safe, which shackles psychopathic loner Luke with adorable Chinese moppet Mei (Catherine Chan), whom he needs to keep safe (get it?) from the Chinese Triad, the Russian Mob, and corrupt New York cops and politicos. Yakin wants us to believe a sort of father-daughter relationship exists between these two characters, and that Luke changes for the better over the course of the script. It uses the line “I didn’t save you—you saved me” without irony.
The problem, though, is that a psychopath is a psychopath is a psychopath. Jason Statham is very charismatic, and why his star hasn’t grown brighter would only be a mystery to me if I hadn’t seen so many of his movies. Let’s face it: he has bad taste. Sometimes he gets lucky, as with the transcendentally silly Crank and Transporter franchises, but mostly, he’s the only redeeming quality in some real pieces of shit—the British John Leguizamo, so to speak. The problem, though, is that I have a hard time imagining even Statham’s charm and legitimate acting chops elevating this character above what he is. Yakin applies the cheap “revenge for his family” motivation and the cheaper “he’s doing it all to protect a young girl” reasoning, but soulless killing machines justify their actions all the time. He’s the sort of guy who brings that big-ass grenade gun from The Expendables to a Rock Paper Scissors tournament—proportional responses are not his strong suit, and casting his actions with such artificial, manipulative reasoning makes the script feel as self-aggrandizing as Luke ultimately does. It’s a lot more compelling—and more entertaining, for sure—to accept who and what he is and let him do his thing, unchecked and unrepentant.
Safe can’t qualify as transcendentally silly because it’s so fucking ugly. Luke’s a vicious, almost pathologically uncreative violent type. But it’s worse than that. In the script, Mei is a 12-year-old girl. Why that particular age, instead of 6 or 20? Because Yakin wants her gangster captors to beat on her, savagely and and sleazily. It’s another cheap manipulation—if she were any older, the audience would wonder why she doesn’t even attempt to fight back; and younger, and they’d rebel in disgust. Yakin depicts the vicious beatings and leering sexualization of a young girl for cheap shock value. We’re not supposed to like the villains, and this is an easy way to hate them. At the end of the day, though, Yakin is the one showing us these things. He’s the one who wants her defenseless, but it’s all so cheap and gaudy, like he’s a barker outside of a dicey S&M club (that’s as opposed to the classy, reputable S&M club featured in Single White Female 2: The Psycho).
Maybe I wouldn’t have such a problem with the rampant abuse of a young girl if not for the fact that there’s nothing organic about it. We’re supposed to hate the villains—and mission accomplished—but we’re also supposed to feel sympathy for Mei, and Yakin isn’t capable enough to pull that off. Mei serves as a MacGuffin, which is what makes her relationship with Luke so unconvincing and makes her own personal traumas so empty and manipulative. That’s why I’m so hard on Yakin—he invented a character who has no humanity whatsoever. She exists for men to beat on her, leer at her, threaten her; even Luke basically uses her as a pawn in a plan to unravel a vast conspiracy involving a Cheney-esque Vice President, the New York City mayor’s office, and various organized-crime syndicates. He says things about how she’s saved him, he uses her as a thin reason for his actions, but at the end of the day, he’s using her as much as her sometime captors. Yakin doesn’t care about Mei any more than the other characters he’s created.
What of that elaborate conspiracy? It’s dumb, dated, and needlessly convoluted—perfect for a dumb action movie. But Yakin brings September 11th—an actual tragedy that happened on this planet—into the equation, and it becomes the Mei of tragic events. Yakin isn’t making a message movie; he’s exploiting the deaths of 2996 people, and the visceral emotional response of American audiences, to push forward a laughable “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theory. But he’s not nearly as good at crazy conspiracy theories as, say, Roland Emmerich or Steven Seagal.
The whole thing feels half-baked, and you all know my number-one rule of screenwriting: if you’re going to spend 40 pages beating young girls, makes sure the rest of your script justifies it.
The Raven by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare
John Cusack is Edgar Allan Poe. Six words I doubt anyone thought they’d ever utter. This script reminded me most of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes—bringing an old-timey character into modern times by way of absurd mysteries and even more absurd action sequences. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t hold a candle to Steven Moffat’s, but it provides some fun and cheap thrills, and that seems to be Ritchie’s primary goal as a filmmaker. Does the similarity make The Raven derivative? Sort of…
The script opens with a lie about a mystery surrounding Poe’s last few days alive. Their thesis: nobody knew what happened to Poe, so this script solves the mystery. It reminded me a little of a Steppenwolf play we saw on a field trip in high school. Designed for students and allegedly educational, the Halloween play focused on the various ghost stories and local legends in Chicago. Of these stories, there are too many to count, so why did they make up a bizarre story about Al Capone that implies he was haunted into insanity by the ghosts of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and “was never seen nor heard from again.” I could buy the spooky hypothesis that he was driven nuts not by advanced syphilis but by ghosts, but even the most disinterested Chicagoan knows Al Capone went to prison and was seen and heard from with alarming frequency after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
So, the script sets out to answer a made-up riddle with fiction. That’s fine. It tries to turn Poe into an Arthur Conan Doyle or Dashiell Hammett figure—a mythical figure with the same approximate experience as their characters. (Granted, Doyle was not a detective, but he was a medical doctor who used the obscure minutiae of his work to drive his mystery plots.) Poe wrote three detective stories, featuring ace logician C. Auguste Dupin and his fawning narrator friend, which had a profound impact on detective fiction without actually being any good.
Listen: it’s a dumb story. It’s about a guy who makes Sherlock Holmes look like Mr. Magoo, resting on plot twists so absurd, even CSI: Miami would laugh them off as too far-fetched. A fucking orangutan—sorry, ourang-outang—stuffs a dude up a chimney. There’s a character named Emil Bonfils, and nobody ever makes light of that. Truth is stranger than fiction, but nothing’s stranger than bad fiction. Poe wrote it because he’d grown obsessed with a school of thought called “ratiocination,” which does not make for compelling detective stories. That’s my view, at least. I sure love rationality, but plenty of crimes—especially violent ones—have no rational basis.
The Raven paints Poe as much more of a detective story author than he ever was, and that’s fine. This isn’t intended as a biography, so I didn’t mind too much that it played looser with his real story than La vie en rose. But when details don’t add up—like his portrayal as a world-renowned, somewhat beloved author who inexplicably lives as a pauper—a little context would help. It’s true that Poe barely made enough to live, because the nature of writing and copyright law at the time was such that writers like him got paid a pittance for individual stories, which were then reprinted all over the world. Royalties didn’t exist, so the fact that Poe is destitute despite being a pauper is fine, but I had to look him up before I knew any of that. The script just takes it for granted that this is perfectly reasonable.
Aspects of the script are fun. Unlike Safe, The Raven is almost gleefully over-the-top. Briskly paced and far more entertaining than it has any right to be, the script plows through plot hole after plot hole in such a charming way, it almost doesn’t matter. Five days before being found, at death’s door, on a Baltimore park bench, Poe (John Cusack) is summoned by the local police to help solve a murder. Why Poe? It’s not just his keen ratiocination—the murders parallel crimes in his own detective stories. Thus, Poe must be the key to finding the killer. He teams up with Detective Fields (Luke Evans), a super-bland dude who exists primarily to give Poe someone to explain his conclusions to. Also, he’s handy at getting Poe into places civilians would otherwise find off-limits.
Both characters take bizarre leaps in logic that fly in the face of Poe’s obsession with reason and order. But then again, so does the script itself: it’s predicated on this notion that nobody knows what happened during Poe’s missing five days, despite the fact that newspaper headlines frequently update the audience on new crimes and specifically mention Poe’s assistance to the police. Late in the script, the killer has been exposed and decides to change his name and flee town—in that order. Yes, he starts giving people his made-up new identity before leaving, allowing the police to easily catch him when he arrives in his new city. I mean, holy fuck!
Stupid entertainment is awesome, though. My issue is not with how dumb this script is. It’s exactly as dumb as it should be. The problem arrives in the third act, where not even the stupidity adds up. I won’t reveal the identity of the killer, just in case any of you chuckleheads want to see this thing, but I will reveal his motive: he’s jealous. He’s had a longtime fixation on Poe, and since he’s failed to achieve any sort of writing fame of his own, our mystery killer decides to force Poe to immortalize him with the story of his crimes. Because the world will listen to a famous author, not someone like the killer. Here’s the problem: the killer has nothing to say, through his words or through his crimes. His murders merely imitate Poe’s stories, and everything he says just makes him sound whiny and pathetic. But maybe he’s not even jealous. If not, I can’t figure out a genuine motive. Without a motive, Poe’s deeply held conviction that ratiocination is the only way to truly solve a crime falls apart.
Like I said, though, the script is cheerful in its stupidity. It’s not a weighty thinkpiece, or even a lightweight thinkpiece. Basically, if you go to The Raven wanting to think, you will be seriously disappointed. If you want a light, dumb movie, you’ll probably have a good time for the first 7/8ths of the movie. The ending is a real clunker, though—not just the complications caused by the killer reveal, but the anticlimactic final scenes. In my view, it retroactively turned the whole script into a real stinker. Your mileage may vary. I’d like to believe James McTeigue could wring some excitement out of these scenes, but I actually sat through Ninja Assassin, so I can say with some measure of authority, “Nope.”