Thursday, February 16, 2012

Movie Review: Safe House

Safe House ***
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa.
Written by: David Guggenheim.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Tobin Frost), Ryan Reynolds (Matt Weston), Vera Farmiga (Catherine Linklater), Brendan Gleeson (David Barlow), Sam Shepard (Harlan Whitford), Rubén Blades (Carlos Villar), Nora Arnezeder (Ana Moreau), Robert Patrick (Daniel Kiefer), Liam Cunningham (Alec Wade), Joel Kinnaman (Keller), Fares Fares (Vargas).

Denzel Washington has such gravitas as an actor that even in a movie as patently ridiculous as Safe House, you believe him. In fact, Washington is so good in Safe House that he makes the whole movie work. No, the movies plot isn’t the least bit realistic or original, but then it was never really meant to be. And the hand to hand combat scenes are shot in that annoying shaky camera style where it becomes almost impossible to tell who the hell is fighting and what the hell they’re doing to each other. And yet, when Washington is on screen – and he’s there for most of the movie – you don’t really care. Throw in a solid supporting cast, some excellent car chases, and a plot, that while unbelievable, does keep you guessing from one scene to the next, Safe House actually becomes a fairly good guilty pleasure.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, once one of the best CIA agents they had, but who a decade ago turned rogue, selling intelligence to whoever was willing to buy it. In Cape Town to buy a file from a MI6 agent, and then turn around and sell it again, he gets caught in a trap he cannot escape – so out of desperation heads to the American Consulate and tells them who he is. It isn’t long before the CIA sends a team to pick him up for some “enhanced interrogation”. To do this, they go to the safe house manned by frustrated, low level CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who wants a chance to do field work, inside of sitting inside an empty building answering the phone, and watching surveillance video all day. Of course, the safe house is compromised, the interrogation team gets killed, and Weston has to take control of Frost himself and hit the road, trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers. But how did they know about the Safe House in the first place? Can he even trust his own superiors?

Safe House keeps you guessing from one scene to the next – you never really know who to trust, who is good, who is bad or why everyone is so intent on catching or killing Frost. You don’t much care either, because Safe House moves so quickly from one scene to the next, and pumps up the action, violence and overall volume to such a high degree, that you don’t really have time to think. Directed by Daniel Espinoza, the film is obviously inspired by frequent Washington collaborator Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, Unstoppable) – in fact the style is so similar to Scott’s that when I saw a preview, I just assumed that this was another Tony Scott-Denzel Washington film. I kind of wish it was – because even though Scott has gone further and further over the top over the years, his high style works perfectly for his movies – and although he cuts as rapidly as Michael Bay, his action scenes still somehow manage to make sense. While Espinoza is able to get the multiple car chases and shootouts pretty much spot on, he fails in the films many hand to hand combat scenes. In particular, there are a few fight scenes at the end of the movie where I could not tell who was fighting who, or what the hell they were doing to each other. You kind of have to wait until the dust settles to figure out who is still alive, and just how injured they are.

A movie like Safe House needs a baseline to make it believable – and that baseline is Washington. Washington is such a charming actor, with that smile, that you cannot help but like him, even in a role like this where he is clearly not a good guy. He also has that physical intensity, that simmering rage and violence just beneath the surface, that you know he’s capable of just about anything, which is why you stay on the edge of your seat throughout. Ryan Reynolds is essentially playing the straight man here, being a fairly straight forward, almost boring character, as to not detract from Washington. As the CIA agents in Washington, desperate to find and keep Frost, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and especially Brenden Gleason are all quite good. This is the type of film you know all three are doing for a paycheck more than anything else, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fine in their roles.

You really cannot take a movie like Safe House all that seriously – you see where its going from the beginning, and the plot is unbelievable. And yet, perhaps because of all the serious Oscar movies I have watched recently (not just from 2011, but years past as well for my soon to return Best Movies I’ve Never Seen Before series), Safe House, as a straight ahead, balls to the wall action film and guilty pleasure did its job. It’s not a great movie by any means, but if the preview intrigues you, I cannot imagine you being disappointed by the film.

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