– Summary –
Director : Daniel Espinosa
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farminga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Rueben Blades, Robert Patrick, Nora Arnezeder, Fares Fares.
Approx Running Time : 115 Minutes
Synopsis: Safe House CIA Agent Matt Weston is thrust into the world of international espionage when he’s forced to take care of remanded fugitive Tobin Frost, a man who holds a secret file that everybody seems to want. After escaping near-assassination inside Weston’s safe house, they travel to various locations around South Africa in order to stay one step ahead of the Bad Guys.
What we think : Denzel and Reynolds are lost amongst the detritus of this Bourne Supermacy-esque action flick, with terrifying editing, an overuse of shaky-cam and a deficit of character development: Safe House is one of the few Washington films I’ve seen where I’ve been left disappointed. Sure, there’s a certain level of tension to proceedings, and the cast all try valiantly, but the inanity of the script and the whizz-bang direction from Espinosa leaves one staring to become slightly motion-sick. Fact is, Safe House is a soulless thrill-ride, lacking genuine heart behind the double-crosses and pursuits. It stirs the imagination initially, but the bizarre leaps in logic, and practicality the narrative shoehorns into a fairly limited script, just kill any momentum it might have had.
A terribly un-safe house…
Watching any modern espionage thriller to come out of Hollywood, and you can count on three key elements pervading them nearly without fail. First, one of the Good Guys is going to turn out to be the Bad Guy. Second, the perceived Bad Guy isn’t always the Bad Guy. And third, nobody believes the Good Guy at any point, so he or she must take on the establishment and save the day themselves. Safe House, directed by Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, portrays itself a a smart, slick action thriller; in actuality, it’s a derivative, long-in-concluding espionage flick that ticks all the genre cliche boxes, causes epilepsy in small children, and ultimately fails to satisfy in nearly every regard. Sure, it stars Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, the former of which usually chooses a variety of interesting and often obscure film projects to star in, but neither of these talents can bring this mediocre effort up out of the doldrums. So what is it about this ostensibly B-movie thriller that doesn’t quite work?
Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is a former CIA agent who now trades information to the highest bidder. After being forced to escape pursuit by entering an American Consulate in South Africa, Frost is taken to a CIA-run safe house, monitored by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). However, the safe house is attacked by unknown assailants intent on killing the CIA team and taking Frost away – Weston escapes with Frost, only to be told by his superiors, Agent Linklater (Vera Farmiga), Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Deputy CIA Director Whitford (Sam Shepard) that he must wait for backup to arrive, some 18 hours later. As the battle of wills between Frost and Weston intensifies, with Frost keen to pursue his own agenda, they must team up to make a last stand at yet another safe house where the person responsible for it all will come for them.
Safe House tries very hard to be an exciting, energetic espionage thriller, but comes up short. Why? Simply put: we don’t care about these characters. The script, as cliched as it is (cue dark skinned henchman who says little but shoots a lot, rambling CIA operatives who may or may not be the bad guy, car chases, crowded public area shootouts, mistaken identity, mistaken motivations, and the overuse of GPS, for this one) manages to keep the pace going relatively well, but it stumbles in its development of the main players. Weston’s given to us as this knockabout CIA agent who needs his big break, while Frost is supposedly this master manipulator, and for a while you tend to think the film might touch on these aspects again after their initial introduction. You’d be wrong to think such things, though. Frost never does any “master manipulating”, and Weston goes from improbable agent wannabe to gun-toting, car-chase-expert driving, street brawling hero in a matter of moments. Weston’s relationship with his girlfriend, played by the beautiful Nora Arnezeder, is as close to character development as we get, but unlike similarly themed espionage thriller The Bourne Identity, which gave the chemistry between Bourne and his romantic lead (Franke Portente) plenty of room to breath and develop, here we’re not as lucky. Weston’s been lying to his girl (cue Denzel giving a speech about how the Agency will make you lie constantly to her blah blah and you’ll have to leave her etc etc) and he feels guilt over it, but this element of the story is insufficiently resolved – it effectively removes any tension Weston might have about being killed and never seeing her again, resulting in the latter half of the film being all guns-and-bullets than any real, emotional payoff.
As mentioned, the script takes great pains to paint Frost as this uber-spy, with skills that make him more than a match for Weston’s untrained abilities, and yet the film – the script, perhaps – never offers a payoff to this buildup. Denzel ends up just being a combination of all the generic agent-turned-rogue we’ve seen before. The script never gives us a motive for his actions (and if it did, I missed it) nor does it allow us to really get a feel for him as a person; no, he just mumbles philosophical meanings of life and work, never commits to an answer definitively, and somehow manages to remain in the Bad Guy’s target throughout. Denzel seems to be trying to give off some mysterious vibes with the role, but somehow it just doesn’t work. As a character, the film never commits to him in any meaningful way.
The trio of CIA overseers, Farmiga, Gleeson and Shepard, are your typical “take your pick” candidates for the rather obviously founded double-cross late in the film. It’s not a surprise that one of these three is actually pulling the strings, and if you have ever seen a spy film before you should be able to see it coming from virtually frame one (like I did), which makes the majority of the conniving and espionage-ing utterly pointless in the long run. Chief henchman, Vargas (Fares Fares) is singularly dimensional as the tough guy leading the constant pursuit – he’s like an unstoppable Terminator, managing to live through all the shootouts save the last one (don’t they all?) and while he certainly looks the part, it’s just a role of function and not of meaning. Rueben Blades makes a cameo as a document forger, and it’s he who delivers some of the films more emotional moments, although thanks largely to some semiautomatic weaponry, this moment is cut short too soon.
While the plot and the overall cliched nature of the film tried my patience, there’s hints of a great filmmaker within Espinosa’s direction. The overuse of shaky-cam destroys the film from a technical point of view, but at times you can see Espinosa’s ideas flowing across the screen and I think, had he shows some restraint in the action sequences, the film’s cohesion might have remained intact. As it stands, though, Safe House buckles under the incomprehensible action sequences, all of which are edited to be as discombobulating as humanly possible, resulting in the viewer having almost no clear idea about things like what the hell is going on. It’s as if Espinosa went to the same film school as Tony Scott (not to impugn the dead, but Scott’s shooting style remains one of my least favorites) and decided to make a film entirely without a steadycam or a dolly track. Too often those really tight facial close-ups just needed to be pulled back a little, as well. The action feels energetic, but really becomes a blur of hard-to-follow shootouts and car chases, leaving the viewer with a mild dose of motion sickness. For an action film, sometimes less is more, Daniel. Move the camera less and allow the audience to see what’s happening, and that might make for a more involving film.
Promoted with “endless action” according to the BluRay cover, I’m reasonably sure the marketing department aren’t overselling this thing at all. The film does contain a high level of constant action pieces, most of which you can’t actually make sense of. The characters are generic, lacking in depth and often in motivation, as if all the enjoyment about the Bourne and Taken films was switched out in favor of a try-hard intelligent effort; it fails. With character we don’t really care about, and action we can’t understand, the film goes into a tailspin of blood and bullets and some mumbling about a secret file, and never recovers. It’s the kind of film you’ve seen done better elsewhere, and you’ll probably wish you’d hired those films instead of watching this one. Safe House is, sadly, not really that great.