Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writer: David Guggenheim
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard
Release date: February 15th, 2012
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 115 minutes
Best part: The South African settings.
Worst part: The generic plot.
With popular actor Denzel Washington playing a hardened protagonist in this violent action thriller, you may feel a sense of deja vu. Films such as Training Day and Man on Fire prove that Washington still has what it takes to adapt to any genre. His latest effort however, will leave you wanting more from his earlier, distinguished work as Safe House surprisingly fails to spark any real excitement from its intriguing premise.
This time, Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA operative who went rogue 10 years earlier and is believed to be a traitor. His search for answers within the agency leads him straight into trouble with the CIA and a band of African rebels; both already watching his every move. On the other side of the coin, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a rookie operative struggling to find his sense of belonging in the agency, is forced to look after a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Frost is brought to the safe house and brutally interrogated after his run in with authorities. Almost immediately, the safe house is attacked and Matt, quickly forced to prove himself, extracts Frost to the next safe location. Their varying ideologies of trust and protocol are changed drastically as they question their responsibilities, emotional attachments and the inner workings of the CIA.
The conventional plot, dialogue and characters don’t lift this thriller above the standard Hollywood action film structure, however convincing and thought provoking performances from Washington and Reynolds manage to keep Safe House together. Their electrifying chemistry accentuates their largely differing personalities. Scenes early in the film of Reynolds’ character boxing, walking lazily through the hallways of the safe house, and bouncing a ball against a wall for hours on end, define his strong desire to prove himself beyond controlling one secure location. This is compared to Washington meeting with a buyer and brutally taking down and escaping from Agents and rebels, illustrating his vastly different skill set and level of experience when compared to Reynolds’ character while defining their yin and yang relationship. Reynolds’ performance is strongly defined by his facial expressions. His naturalistic reactions when forced either to kill someone or explain his situation to his girlfriend, illustrate his strong emotional shift when discovering the crushing depths his new life has led him to. This also proves that Reynolds is vastly becoming one of the most dynamic young actors consistently working.
“You practice anything a long time, you get good at it. You tell a hundred lies a day, is sounds like the truth. Everyone betrays everyone.” (Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), Safe House).
Washington’s character is unfortunately given short shrift. Not only have we seen several, more developed, variations of his version of the anti-hero before, but the plot revolving around his search for answers becomes increasingly uninteresting as the film goes on. Also given nothing but basic characterisations are Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson. These talented, veteran actors are wasted in their small roles that serve little for the story. The style of this film distracts from the clear and simplistic exposition given. First time Hollywood director Daniel Espinosa takes many leaves out of Tony Scott’s book while choosing to film South Africa as if through the eye of the follower. The cinematography, involving shaky hand held camera work and very low lighting, serve a purpose in conveying a sense of realism, but severely detract from the film’s unique appearance. This becomes abundantly clear in the many action scenes peppered throughout. Though the action is well choreographed and shockingly violent, quick cuts and problematic cinematography keep them from either being creative for even understandable. The settings and colour patterns of Safe House are presented effectively, delivering a gritty representation of both the African desert landscapes and decrepit Cape Town settings. While also serving a perfect reflection of this story of dirt under the fingernails of the CIA and the murderous extremes people will go to.
Ultimately, Safe House is an action packed yet forgettable thriller. Serving a message about the free world’s view of its governments and security, and the treatment of prisoners in US government controlled interrogations, may be convincingly handled, but the poorly handled cinematography and conventional story and character elements keep it from being the relevant and entertaining action flick it deserves to be.