Safe House (2012)
MY CALL: Gritty intensity, striking action, and brilliant on-screen exchanges between Reynolds and Washington transform this cookie cutter script into a very entertaining, stylistic movie. [B] IF YOU LIKE THIS, WATCH: The Bourne Identity (2002) and sequels.
Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a man young in his career and hungry for the opportunity to prove himself and advance in station (to CIA case officer) from his rookie safe house post in Capetown, South Africa. His boring day-to-day stewardship gets exciting when the CIA’s most wanted traitor (Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost) turns himself in and his escorted to Weston’s safe house for interrogation. During rendition exercises, complete with waterboarding, a team of unknown alliance infiltrates the safe house targeting the recovery or perhaps assassination of Tobin Frost. All CIA personnel are killed except for Weston, who escapes with Frost.
The rest of the movie follows Weston as he alone tries to transfer Frost to another safe house. But Frost is a handful. He “rewrote the CIA protocol for handling assets” and is a master of psychological manipulation. Frost bombards Weston with taunts of the future failure of his romantic life, isolating comments of how the CIA will set him up to avoid the scrutiny of scandal, and even his fists. Meanwhile Weston tries to figure out why this mysterious hit squad is trying to get him. Who are they? What does he have that they want? What does he know? Weston’s handlers are trying to learn the same things while questioning whether Weston has flipped sides.
Safe House is director Daniel Espinoza’s and writer David Guggenheim’s first major release. The story is far from original, but these two did an excellent job weaving clever scenarios and executing shocking action sequences. From car chases to hand-to-hand combat, the action was high impact and sounded (and even “felt”) harder than most movies. The major flaw was in the depiction of the CIA. Perhaps I have the wrong idea from movies like Spy Game (2001) or The Bourne Identity (2002), but in Safe House information seems to flow more slowly, specialized personnel and extraction teams are not as readily available, and the higher-ups seem to jump to conclusions when clearly there is really no certainty or evidence as to what is going on. Whether or not it accurately depicts overseas intelligence agencies, it is not what we’ve come to expect from such movies.
This writing flaw extends to the supporting characters. Sam Shepard and Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, Gangs of New York) are two brilliant actors who are given no chance to show it. Vera Farmiga’s (Up in the Air, Source Code) character is written so poorly that I would call her a bad actress if I had not seen her other work.
Lastly, Matt Weston’s girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) served no purpose other than to act as one of numerous devices for Frost to get into Weston’s head. Her character should have been deleted from the script outright.
Chick, you’re gorgeous. But you have no business being in this movie.
Regarding the main characters, the writing posed no problem. Reynolds and Washington play off of each other to perfection. We all knew Denzel was amazing, but Reynolds really got a chance to show his dramatic talent. As Matt Weston we see none of the Reynolds we all know from EVERY quick-witted, womanizing role he’s played from superheroes (The Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Blade: Trinity) to regular Joes (Buying the Cow, The Change-Up). These two actors took a cookie cutter script and helped to transform it into something enjoyable. Despite this major save, I think writer Guggenheim should be blacklisted. Espinoza, however, shows promise.
You won’t get caught up in the plot but you will lose yourself in Reynolds and Washington. Watch and enjoy.
SIDEBAR: The Hof made a funny comment about the Denzel-young white guy team ups like we see here and in Training Day or Unstoppable. “You need a serious dramatic actor next to Denzel. You can’t just use some jabroni!” LOL. I about shit myself when he said that.