Luke Wright (Jason Statham) is a minor league mixed martial arts fighter who ekes out a living dumping fights in the Jersey suburbs for chump change. One fateful evening he decides that enough is enough and he knocks out a rival to whom he was supposed to lose.
His insolence does not please the Russian mob, which wants to teach him a lesson and in the process keep everyone else in line. He returns home to find his wife murdered and the perpetrators waiting for him. Surprisingly they do not murder but rather inform him that they will kill anyone who has even the briefest relationship or friendship with him.
Destitute, he roams the streets of Manhattan by day and sleeps in a shelter at night. When a stranger to whom he lent a pair of shoes is killed by the vengeful Moscow mobsters, a dejected Luke is told to never return to the sanctuary. Guilt-ridden, he contemplates jumping in front of a train at the DeKalb Avenue station.
He notices a frightened Chinese girl named Mei (Catherine Chan) who is being chased by the same nice folks who made him a widower. He immediately springs into action and follows her onto the D train the hard way — by leaping onto it as it pulls out and then moving from the back to the front of the train by jumping from the top of one car to the next.
It turns out that 12-year-old Mei has both a photographic memory and an extremely advanced mathematical aptitude. She was kidnaped back in her homeland of China and brought to the United States by a Beijing crime syndicate to enhance gambling revenues; figure out if local gaming bosses might be skimming profits; and help open safes, including one in lower Manhattan that contains $30 million. Both the Russian and Chinese bad guys need Mei to open it. A gang of corrupt New York cops, many of whom used to be Luke’s colleagues, also want to get in on the action.
Mei’s plight gives Luke a sense of spiritual renewal and purpose. His mission, even if it’s his last, is to protect her.
Writer-director Boaz Yakin told me at a press conference for this film that he was trying to create a homage to the great politically incorrect popcorn action movies of the 1970s, such as “Dirty Harry,” “Serpico,” “Death Wish,” and “The French Connection.” He has certainly succeeded as the bullets and punches never stop flying from the first frame to the last.
Yakin also pays tribute to 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” with the plot device of a fighter doing a double-cross in a rigged bout to turn the tables on organized crime. It’s not a coincidence that Lawrence Bender, the film producer on this project, served in the same role on “Pulp Fiction.”
British actor Statham is quickly becoming this generation’s answer to Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is a man of few words but can deliver a killer line before delivering a killer blow to an enemy.
The film makes good use of New York City (though a few scenes were shot in Philadelphia), including a number of recognizable Queens locales.
If you want tongue-in-cheek violent escapist fare, you are certainly safe spending your money on this film. This is the best cinematic guilty pleasure of 2012.