He was an adorable and precocious child, plump and wide-eyed, with a room-filling presence that warmed the bitterest of hearts. His cheerfully naive demeanour, so sweet and earnest, had a way of assuring adult company that the world was a pleasant place after all and that every human being is born fundamentally decent.

This tender-minded tyke’s life began to take a long tragic turn when, approaching puberty, his poor but altruistic parents signed him on to participate in an obscure university nutritional science study that aspired to examine the psychological impact of particular foods over a long period of time, for which they were paid a modest fee.

The child was given a strict diet and for a decade ate only raw beef and lemons. Cow and citrus. Every meal, every day. Over time his rounded body thinned; his puppy fat turned to muscle; his skin coarsened; his smile transformed into a shit-eating snarl; his voice took on the sound of trampled gravel.

Eventually, he launched a career in acting.

This is (perhaps) how the 34-year-old mould of muscle and mendacity known as Jason Statham came into existence. At least, it’s a way of rationalising that dirty matt of grim determination. Those contours of existential misanthropy stamped across his cranky countenance.

Statham will go down in cinema history as a Bronson-esque blockhead who played in the sand pits of B action movies, where the occasional dirty jewel will be dug out, often years later, and often through the haze of nostalgia.

His latest boff-n-tiff time-killer, Safe, gets off to a roaring start before eventually puttering into a network of plot pitfalls from whence it never properly recovers. Crudely developed characters soar some impressive story tangents and Boaz Yakin’s (who also wrote the screenplay) at times deft direction. Nevertheless there is enough to like for action-hungry audiences erring on the side of forgiveness.

The first act, for example, kicks off with a stylish rendering of two characters in the form of death magnets. Ex-special forces operative Luke Wright (Statham), now a boxer, failed to take a fall in a fixed fight and cost angry gangsters a lot of money. Intending to make a special example of him, they murder his wife and — instead of delivering him the same fate — inform Wright that they will be hovering around, watching and unseen. If he makes a new friend, or buys a girl at a bar a drink, or even shares a short chinwag with a stranger, that person will be killed.

Simultaneously, Yakin serves up the story of a 12-year-old Chinese girl called Mei (Catherine Chan), an intellectual prodigy who is used as a human computer by the Chinese mafia to store a long sequence of numbers for a combination to a safe. They reason that every computer leaves some kind of trail, but a human mind does not.

Corrupt cops and rival gangs hungry for the code maintain a merciless habit of murdering everybody around her. Wright, who Mei indadvertedly saves from the precipice of suicide simply by soliciting his sympathy, vows to keep her alive and safe, which ensures the film’s one word title bears a double meaning.

It’s a great pairing: two characters whose gravitational pulls suck in death and destruction from everywhere in a ten block radius.

Some snazzy directorial flourishes and a smashing pace give Safe a degree of pep and panache, even though it slows down and unravels in the third act.

The film’s dialogue, of course, offers no chance of reflecting on the sweet child that once was; that precocious boy; that cheerfully naive little’un.

Not with dialogue like: “There’s a school for gifted children up in Seattle. It’s a nice drive. If you like trees and shit.”

Safe’s Australian theatrical release date: May 17, 2012.