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Safe: a good example of show don’t tell in character building

Today I saw the Jason Statham movie Safe.

Despite the fact that the movie had obviously bombed – at least I’m guessing it did because it had only been out a couple of weeks and we had to search to find a theatre where it was on, and then they only had one session early in the day – I enjoyed it.  There were eight of us, squashed together in the same row of seats (I don’t know why movie theatres do this) like the grand circle at the opera.

It was a typical Statham movie, with lots of violence, dozens of bad guys—a Russian gang, an Asian gang and corrupt local police—all pitted against our hero and the young girl he chooses to champion.

The moviegoer in me enjoyed the spectacle, although I would have liked less violence and more plot, while the writer in me loved the characterisation that was not only an excellent example of “show, don’t tell”, but also managed to drive the plot forward.

Spoilers after the fold.

Show, don’t tell

Statham’s character, Luke, used to be in waste disposal.  Over the course of the movie we learn that ‘waste disposal’ is the term we expect in a movie like this.  He got rid of scum off the streets.  Murderers, drug dealers, anyone the corrupt police couldn’t handle.  No surprises there.

Not only that, our hero finally decides that it’s a terrible job and he doesn’t want to do it any more.  He redeems himself by resigning and ends up working as a fighter in a grungy little fight club.  No surprises there either.  In fact, we have a stereotype in the making here.  (But remember, we don’t know most of this yet.)

The story starts with Luke almost killing someone in a fight.  Because Luke is a professional killer he always pulls his punches on the amateurs and lets them win. But this time he doesn’t know until he hits the guy.  He hits him once.  We see a lot more of Luke’s character in how he reacts to what happens.

Unfortunately for him, a Russian gangster had placed a lot of money on the other guy winning. He’s not happy.  Not happy at all.  He sends his son along to get even.  Son kills Luke’s wife but doesn’t kill Luke.  Instead, he tells him that they’ll be watching him and will kill anyone he befriends.

Twelve months later he’s on the streets, a homeless bum. Even another bum he donates a pair of boots to (and there’s logical reasons he donates these boots) ends up dead the next day.

Cause and effect

I love that this character setup at the start propels the whole movie.  If Luke hadn’t been the type of person he was he wouldn’t pull his punches against amateurs. If he didn’t pull his punches the gangster would never have bet against him.  If the gangster hadn’t bet against him Luke wouldn’t have ended up on the streets a year later about to commit suicide.

The continuity continues in the way he meets Mei.

Mei, a young mathematical genius with an eidetic memory, has been counting money for a Chinese Triad whose boss doesn’t believe in leaving any written evidence.  The Russians capture her because she has memorised the code to a safe they want open. She escapes from the gang, because the corrupt police are playing the Chinese off against the Russians, and heads down to the subway where Luke, who has just come from his own encounter with those same corrupt police, is about to end it all.

Of course, the Russians go looking for her but seeing them chasing her gives Luke a reason to live again.

Violence and mayhem ensue.

The movie wasn’t perfect.  There were lots of clumsy flash forwards/flashbacks at the start and I was frustrated that if Luke was such a good fighter why didn’t he try to take out as many Russians as he could (and corrupt police) when he decided to jump in front of a train. But for me that was a minor irritation. My writerly soul rejoiced in the inevitability of what happened, and why.

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