Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Safe & Counter-Culture Masculinity

I can be nothing but impressed with ex-Olympic swimmer Jason Statham's latest thriller Safe, about a former cop with a branch of the Russian mafia after him who comes to the aid of a 12 year-old Chinese girl. Is it the action sequences? The sex scenes? Mr. Statham's charisma? No, none of these (thankfully, there are no love scenes in the film) it's the genuine standard of masculinity breaking through to illustrate what men really need today and why they really need it.
Statham plays Luke Wright who turned cage fighter after turning in some of his crooked buddies on the police force (who haven't forgotten what he did to them). Wright blows a rigged fight he participated in and gets the Russian mob after him because of their losses on the bet. Returning home, Luke finds his wife and un-bornchild murdered with the Russians turning him out to make an example of him. Destitute and knowing any relationships he forms will only lead to the deaths of others, Luke is ready to jump onto a subway train rail and end it all when he sees the frightened Mei (Catherine Chan) trying to get away from Russian mobsters who kidnapped her from Chinese mobsters using her unique talent for math to keep track of their business accounts. Luke decides to make sure Mei reaches safety despite her being the key to a $30 million safe and another safe holding a disc with the names of all New York's dirtiest politicians and cops on it. So, the Russians, the Chinese and the New York police force are after the two of them.
Loosely based on Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller The 39 Steps, Safe is one more film in a growing trend exploring what society expects of men and how men really need to be for their own sake: Immortals, Shame, This Means War, The Cabin In the Woods and Wrath Of the Titans, all support the very un-popular male chastity lifestyle because of the ruin promiscuity brings upon sexually active men and women (outside marriage), but Safe goes a step beyond that and shows how being responsible for children is what really saves men from the potential ravages of self-destructive masculinity (which would be promiscuity, not marrying, not having children or not supporting the children he has, not forming life-long, meaningful ties and relationships).
Luke has arrived home to find his wife and unborn baby butchered by the Russian mob surrounding him. They decide to let Luke live, but only to torment him with poverty and loneliness. Later in the film, someone mentions to Luke that they could never understand why he stayed with Annie (his wife) who was such a "cow." It was never about how she looked, Luke says, it was about her personality, and that in and of itself undermines the facade of what men in contemporary society present as wanting in a relationship, a blond with big boobs, no brain, etc., etc., etc. It would have been very easy for the film makers to change that line, or to insert Annie as a beautiful, trophy wife to enhance Luke's masculine appeal to the audience, but they don't do that, and I am proud of them and grateful to them for abstaining from the temptation because it might that route might seem like enhancing masculinity, but it doesn't, and in turn also degrades genuine femininity (not Feminism) .
When we first meet Luke in the beginning of the film, he's not a squeaky clean guy: he's been participating in rigged cage fights for a kick-back and it appears (but I'm not quite sure about this) that along with his buddies on the NY police force, he was taking bribes as well, but the others stepped over a line and he turned them in, which they haven't forgotten. Safe is very much about penance, but its also about the inner-strength we have which will be utilized in the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman: Ravenna the evil queen (Cherlize Theron) bathes in a white fluid to turn her blackened sins as white as snow, whereas Snow White (Kristen Stewart) will have to go through the darkened and filthy sewers to escape the queen. Evil tries to cover up their sins, but the hero has to completely put forth every single sin on the table and be cleansed of it or they aren't strong enough to overcome the evil they have to go against and Safe knows this spiritual lesson well.
Luke Wright in the colors of penance. Gray, because it's the color of ashes, symbolizes either/both someone in a state of penance, a pilgrim or a novice. We can certainly understand Luke as a pilgrim, looking for a new road in life when his seems at a "dead end," literally. His clothes are layered, meaning that he's keeping things "under wraps," not getting involved with anyone (because they would be killed if he did) and his stocking cap lets us know the "darkening thoughts" gathering in his mind. But after saving Mei and checking into a hotel, he changes clothes; importantly, Mei says something the audience wouldn't be able to discern on our own, that he still stinks. Like Tobin (Denzel Washington) in Safe House from earlier this year, an attempt to clean up sins has to be complete and total, you can't leave any lingering sins, but it doesn't look like that's what Luke plans to do, that he knows saving Mei up to that point is redemptive, but it doesn't cover everything he's done, but he's willing to go the extra mile to get completely cleaned up (for more, please see Safe House & Death In Art).
As Luke wanders around New York City, he spends a night in a church-turned homeless shelter, and one of the other men staying the night there admires Luke's shoes; after the homeless man takes off his own shoes and Luke sees what horrible and ghastly shape the guy's feet are in, Luke gives this guy his own shoes. In the morning, the guy has had his throat slit and the shoes have been stolen. (The scene might be a reference to Preston Sturges' 1941 hit Sullivan's Travels). What's the point? Minor characters like this don't exist in and of themselves, rather, they are mirrors to hold up to the main character and reveal to the audience aspects of their suffering the author/artist wants communicated to the viewer.
Luke in the homeless shelter, the young man across from him taking his tattered shoes off for Luke to see his diseased feet.
The young homeless man symbolizes Luke's will for us, because feet symbolize the will, and the years of wandering without any relationships or purpose has "rubbed Luke raw" like the young man's feet. Being able to give the young man his shoes helps Luke to feel better, but that, too, is stolen from him just like the shoes because he's accused of having killed the young man instead of having done him a good turn (the young man's throat being slit, the neck symbolizes what guides us or leads us, and the Russian mob taking vengeance on Luke for anything he does destroys Luke's ability to, ultimately, be human and that's what's wearing Luke "thin" like the young homeless man's awful feet).
The pickpocket with the crazy hair (hair symbolizes our thoughts) who bumps into Luke and accuses Luke of being rude when it was the pickpocket who bumped into him. This upside-down scene demonstrates how Luke is caught in an upside-down world: he hasn't done anything to warrant this life yet the real criminals are running loose and Luke, the innocent man in this affair, is suffering for it. Luke's faith in right and wrong is part of the "wealth" the pickpocket steals from Luke besides just his wallet.
Luke is then asked not to return to the homeless shelter and, walking on the street, a pickpocket bumps into him, stealing his wallet after verbally beating him up for being careless about where Luke is going. Stealing Luke's money isn't about his world possessions, but symbolizes Luke's own "self-worth," and his weakening condition and will to live. The scene is well situated because it connects Luke "bumping into" the authorities at the homeless shelter and the next scene of Luke "bumping into" his old buddies on the NYPD who hate him. These scenes are being offered to the viewer to carefully build up to our appreciation of Luke's readiness to end his life on the rails of the subway train, and why Mei and saving her really is Luke saving himself (as he tells her on more than one occasion).
Luke being beat up by his old friends on the police force who want paybacks for turning them in and demoting them in the departments. This scene is important because it's now showing how Luke is being robbed of his past achievements and really doesn't have anything left. There are some (specifically materialists) who would dismiss this film as having any merit based on the "body count" Luke racks up throughout the movie; on a spiritual level, however, all the people Luke kills or disables are actually projections of his inner self, his inner weaker self that has to be overcome/destroyed in order for him to be a hero. This is a standard literary device in art, that the struggles the main character faces are struggles within the self and that's why the audience can share in/be a part of the struggle and identify with the main character because we have the same ordeals interiorly that we must undergo and overcome as well; hence, the value of art, that it reminds us of our true purpose, shows us how to accomplish that purpose and the value of winning the fight. The inner forces Luke has to overcome within himself (that part of him that still smells as Mei points out) are the shady deals he made in cage fighting, as a cop, the people he has killed as a cop (without giving them due process of the law), any failures he might have had with his own parents, with his wife Annie, etc.
What about Mei?
She has been betrayed by one of her classmates, the niece of a Chinese mafia leader, who tells her uncle about how smart Mei is. Because "computers leave trails," Han wants a person who can memorize all his books so he can erase them with a pull of the trigger. Giving Mei a "new dad," (her father had abandoned her and her sick mother) Mei can do nothing but accept that Han will take care of her ailing mother, or kill them both if Mei doesn't help him. What role model in her life do you think the niece learned about betraying people from? Her Uncle Han, who probably superseded his niece's father (if he was even around) in influence because of Han's wealth and power in the mafia.
It takes a while, after Luke saves her from Russians on the subway and the cops looking for her on the street, for Mei to even let Luke know she speaks English; why? Like Luke, everyone Mei loves and cares for seems to get killed and she's not forming any relationships which could hurt someone else, not really realizing the damage she's doing to herself in the process (but who would expect a 12 year-old girl to know about that? They shouldn't, they should be kids).
There's an important side-street for us to take: Christianity.
In the film, when the Russians gather around Luke, one of them prays a rosary (I know, that's so odd); the young homeless man tells Luke, "Jesus loves you, brother" for giving him the shoes; a woman assigned to Mei lets Mei know when her mother has died and tells Mei to pray for her mother's soul so she can find her way to heaven and there is a Russian, Christian icon behind Emile's head when Luke calls to negotiate with him over Vassily. There are several ways of understanding these references and they can easily co-exist together.
This is really well done. Luke has just changed clothes (but hasn't showered) and they finally relax in a hotel room. Mei watches TV but her and Luke start silently fighting over control over the TV remote. Even though Luke has just done some serious fighting and saved Mei several times, he doesn't have the authority over her that a father does in being able to command her to not watch TV or not watch certain things on TV; that bond between a father and child doesn't exist that will exist by the end of the film and be what both Mei and Luke desperately need to feel "safe."
Each of the people connected to the Christian references could be said to be "bad" or at least un-Christian in their characters. The Russian with the rosary has just butchered a woman and child; the young homeless man has offered sexual services, the young Chinese woman has betrayed Mei and jeopardized her life and Emile has a list of sins too long to go into. It's tempting to say the film is anti-Christian, that would be easy to do and wash our hands of it, but Luke tells Vassily (locked in the trunk of the car) to "pray that little girl is still  alive. Pray." Hence, we can discern the superficial Christian references to those that are far deeper and more abiding, those guiding Luke and the way he must go to save Mei and himself.
Mei's adoptive father Han gives her to look after her and make sure she's doing her job correctly. Han gives Mei a long number to memorize, the combination to a safe with $30 million dollars in it, then they plan on taking her to another place to get the combination to another safe that has the disc of New York's corrupt officials. After they get the goods, they plan on killing Mei.
Similarly, we can take an additional step and say the false presentations of Christianity (the pretense of being Christian without actually living out the faith) these various characters present form part of the danger against men who need the Christian influence and valuable lessons of Christianity which strengthens them in thier masculinity so they can do what they need to do because they have the great role model of sacrifice, Jesus Christ.
Mei saving Luke the second time. Knowing how deadly Alex is in a fight, Mei doesn't want Luke to fight him, so she takes up the gun left on the ground. Is this the kind of image we want to see, though, a child holding a gun and ready to shoot? No, absolutely not, but it's realistic because of all the violence Mei has been exposed to--directly and indirectly--that it can't be helped that as a 12 year-old she would mimic what she has been seeing. Saving Mei will be a life-long battle for Luke, because now he will have to un-teach her the things she has learned but her being there for him to teach her will also be saving him from slipping back into that inner-oblivion.
Which brings us to an interesting detail: when Luke and the cops are trying to get the $30 million safe open, Luke goes in the wrong direction with the combination, and we can read this as a larger realization of his whole life, that he had been going in the wrong direction and that's why the great value of life (what's in the safe) remain locked to him. Which leads us to the whole purpose of the film: Luke has the choice of three safes and their content, the safe with $30 million dollars, the safe with the disc of corruption or Mei, and it's Mei, the orphaned 12 year-old that he chooses because, in Luke's own words, she saved him twice (first when he was going to jump in front of the subway car and again when Luke has to fight Alex and Mei shoots Alex in the leg to protect Luke). This is the realization of true and genuine masculinity: children save men from becoming their own worst nightmare.
"I'm sorry, Annie," Luke says, getting ready to jump in front of the subway, until he happens to glance to the side and sees Mei looking frightened and running from something. With the abortion and birth-control culture politics has created in America, children are viewed as being burdensome and undesirable, as having no intrinsic value in and of themselves; Safe aptly demonstrates the enormity of the value of the bond created between a real man and a child (not even his child, not even a child of his own ethnicity, but a child in need, nonetheless) and how the love of a child can save a man from his inner-demons and how children need to be saved by men willing to step up and meet the challenge.
It is perhaps the overwhelming message of the film that critics have shrunk from, a message of genuine love and responsibility and sacrifice (especially in the face of $30 million), but a message that is not only a part of an ever growing trend, but one this country desperately needs to hear. Luke starts to tell Mei he doesn't know how he will be as a father (to her) and Mei interrupts him and says that she has had enough fathers, she really needs a friend. Is this a undermining of the whole film and what it's built up to this point? No, because the audience feels that sting, we know that much lower standard being created and that in and of itself makes the viewer want to be more than a friend; that line from Mei calls upon the viewers' own sense of moral justice and innate goodness in recognizing what it is that really makes the world go around. That's the last punch thrown by the film, so to speak, and it hits the viewer square on the jaw.