Safe House (2012) / Thriller-Action
MPAA rated R for strong violence throughout and language
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Fares Fares, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick, Rubén Blades, Liam Cunningham, Joel Kinnaman
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: David Guggenheim
Review published February 12, 2012
Ryan Reynolds (The Change-Up, The Proposal) plays rookie CIA agent Matt Weston, reluctantly stuck in a dreary, boring assignment looking after an empty safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When his locale is used as the interrogation destination for an infamous former intelligence officer turned rogue seller of many government secrets, Tobin Frost (Washington, The Book of Eli), he gets the first excitement of his 12 months there, especially when the place goes under siege from heavily armed mercenaries who decimate nearly everyone there, looking to get important global intel in Frost's possession that would expose many in the world intelligence community. With no easy solution in sight, and seizing upon the opportunity to prove his abilities to his superiors to judge reassignment, Weston ends up on the run with Frost throughout various locations in Cape Town. But they are discovered at nearly every turn, leading the men to believe that someone inside may in on the attempted assassination of Frost, and with a green recruit as his only ally, things look bleak for survival.
Shot in Bourne-series shaky cam, which shouldn't be a surprise, as cinematographer Oliver Wood (Surrogates, Talladega Nights) had been the director of photography for that trilogy, Safe House delivers plenty of grit, grain, and ultra-close shots of the main actors looking tense. It's a good look for the piece by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money, Babylon Disease), even if overused, though it does often distract from some very credible thespians during a few key moments of drama within the film. Scenes of torture, such as one involving waterboarding, don't effectively capture the suffering and agony that must be going on, and some of the fight scenes alternate between making nearly impossible things look easy and making easy things, particularly against 'boss' bad guys, look like they could go on forever. It is strikingly similar to other Denzel Washington works of late, particularly the ones by Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 123, Deja Vu), and there is a feeling that Washington, who also serves as producer, wanted to keep the look and feel of his other commercially successful films.
As with Bourne, car chases and hand-to-hand fights are heavily edited, and quite exciting visually, though there is a curious lack of white-knuckle tension that should have resulted from the scenes had the script by first-time feature film scribe David Guggenheim spent more time with the characters to get us to care about their situations before throwing them on the run. But there is still a beauty to the way the brutality is filmed that should please many fans of action movies, even if the main story itself is murky and not always interesting. Some of the action pieces are contrived in the way that they become set up, and make little sense from the standpoint that the men are supposed to be inconspicuous -- one involving attending a soccer match at a stadium filled to capacity right in the middle of a game, the other in and out of a protest in the streets. One gets used to the characters doing dumb things for the payoff of the explosive action, but eventually, the trade-off doesn't quite seem worthy of the quality of the talent in front of the camera.
Though the action is dynamic, ultimately, it is Washington that sells the film in terms of credibility enough to overcome the serious leaps in logic required to contort the plot in the direction of lengthy set pieces. He gives his character the enigmatic complexity required to make following him interesting, as, like 3:10 to Yuma, we're never 100% sure if he is trying to help the rookie captor become better because he cares, or if he's leading him to certain doom. And he's mostly understated in his performance, subdued, calm, cool and collected, except when the time comes for survival. Reynolds does fine in a less defined role, only notable because he does none of his usual low-brow ad-libs that tend to mar some of his other roles in serious films. A solid supporting cast that includes Vera Farmiga (Source Code), Brendan Gleeson (The Guard) and Sam Shepard (The Accidental Husband) as CIA higher-ups contribute solid turns in their respective roles.
Safe House is not to all tastes, as it is quite violent, as has been in keeping with Denzel's Man on Fire and Training Day. It should hit the mark with those who do enjoy R-rated action-thrillers, and, to a lesser extent, fans of the film's stars. It does start strong, but as more information comes out as to the whos and whys of what's going on, the film's weaknesses begin to show, and it is nearly all undone by two epilogue scenes that feel tacked-on in order to give the viewers the semblance of a happy ending. Until then, the highly potent and gritty thrills are delivered, enough to justify it as time well spent for politically-tinged action film fans.
©2012 Vince Leo