Safe House for being a film about rogue spies, is strangely by the book. That said, it’s carried well by intense, engrossing performances and generally breathless pacing.
Released February 10, 2012
Written by David Guggenheim (not DAVIS)
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Starring Vera Farmiga, Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick, and Sam Shepard
* * * * *
There are moments of such intensity in Safe House that the viewer’s heart gets a’thumping and the muscles tense up. Those moments are not the best moments of the film, but they’re close.
Safe House starts with Matt Weston (Reynolds) hitting a punching bag. He is a bored, low-level, rookie CIA operative on assignment as a ‘housekeeper’ in a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s aching to be reassigned to somewhere with a little more excitement. We later find out that he had a rough-ish childhood, ended up at Yale, is middling when it comes to most spy-craft stuff but was excellent at the more visceral tradecraft of shooting and such. His boredom is well established, while his times spent with his lovely girlfriend, Ana (Anezeder), are tender and deeply felt.
Pan to Tobin Frost (Washington). He’s a highly-skilled rogue operative running some kind of deal. He acquires a file that presumably has some very high-value information. Turns out it’s got dirt on lots of people. He wants to sell it. But somebody wants to stop him. He spends the entire movie on the run.
Frost gets in a sticky situation and ends up having to turn himself in to stay alive. He shows up at the safe house run by Weston, accompanied by some CIA operative guards. Robert Patrick plays the head of this group and does a nice, if brief, job.
Frost’s opponents show up, although they shouldn’t have even known where the safe house was. They do this a lot and it becomes clear that they have someone on the inside directing their movements. It might be Linklater (Farmiga) or it might be Barlow (Gleeson), who happens to be Weston’s mentor. It might even be someone else, like Deputy Director Whitford (Shepard). Whatever the case is, all of these CIA types want Frost and they have to depend on Weston to keep him under wraps and safe, all while dodging some relentless mercenaries.
The central premise is now established. What the filmmakers wanted to do differently was have Frost be very sympathetic, very smart, and still be pretty much self-interested. This turned out well in one way: They got Denzel Washington to play Frost.
Safe House rollicks along, with Weston fighting to keep up with Frost and keep him under control. There are intense car chases, visceral fights that suffer from the inconstant and shaking camera, and lots of gunshots. You can predict every twist that comes along and the ending is pretty pat, if also quite a throwback to the ‘everybody’s good’ ending of spy movies from the ’90s.
Safe House is a good movie. It’s perfectly well diverting and is acted well beyond the pretty workaday script. The script really is where the heart of the problem abides. It’s been done, better in many cases, and really had no surprises. We’ve seen the characters, seen the conflicts, seen the betrayals, and seen the ending.
That said, the production designer did a fine job in helping the audience experience the familiar in a loud, raw, engaging way. Washington and Reynolds also breathe humanity into the familiar characters they inhabit. They deliver the tired dialogue so well that it even perks up a bit. These performances are like a shot of caffeine during the daily, 2 o’clock stretch of most people’s afternoons. The stretch happens every day, we know it’s going to happen, so we grab an energy drink.
Unfortunately, viewers don’t want to see their 2 o’clock afternoon stretch on screen.
All in all, Safe House delivers spectacular action set pieces, very good performances, and a story we’ve seen before. As action fare, it’s good, particularly for the time of year, but Chronicle is better. If you want to see Denzel turn in a great performance, Vera Farmiga put on a clinic, and Ryan Reynolds prove that he really can act, all in an action vehicle, go for it.
Somewhat recommended, mostly for fans of the actors and lovers of action films.
Content warnings: Mid-high level profanity, tons of violence, suggestive partial nudity, painful-looking wounds, and moments of extreme intensity.
Writing: 2 Acting: 4.5 Overall: 3
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