Safe House


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Safe House
"The role of Frost, enigmatic, dangerous, with added unfathomable moral compass, is something Washington excels at and can do in his sleep, but he's played that card perhaps too many times for it to seem fresh."

When you come across a CIA thriller featuring Ryan Reynolds as a rookie downtrodden CIA operative and Denzel Washington as a veteran rogue agent, set in the unusual location of Cape Town, South Africa, its hard not to feel that the combo of rookie pup and corrupted (but how corrupt?) veteran is an attempt to trade on warmer memories of cop thriller Training Day (which starred Washington and bagged him an Oscar for best actor). Meanwhile, the unconventional locale for this spy adventure, feels like an attempt to replicate the exotic globetrotting thrills of the Bourne and Bond franchises.

Sadly, director Daniel Espinosa doesn't bring the key elements that those franchises possess in spades to the table - interesting and charismatic characters, twists that keep the proceedings feeling fresh, and intensely exciting, coherent action sequences that use the locations rather than just have them feature as cute backdrops. This is spy thriller paint by numbers.

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Safe House sees low level CIA agent Matt Weston stuck in a dead end job manning a CIA safe house in Cape Town. As the film quickly makes clear, he's bummed out at having been given this dull posting, and having to lie to his local girlfriend about his real work. Things change however when Tobin Frost, a notorious rogue agent wanted for selling state secrets, suddenly crosses his path. An earlier sequence shows Frost acquiring a data chip from an ageing MI6 agent in Johannesburg. What is on it remains unclear, but it is worth enough to get him tailed by mysterious assassins, which forces Frost to turn himself in to the nearby US consulate.

Wanting to debrief Frost quickly, CIA HQ has Frost brought to Weston's safe house. Theoretically all Weston has to do is sit back and let the CIA special ops team who arrive do their job of interrogating Frost. But when the assassins mysteriously discover the safe house's location and kill everyone inside, Western has to flee with the highly dangerous Frost, who gradually reveals what is was that makes him such a target, and why he betrayed the Agency. If Weston can avoid being killed by the wily Frost, who slips in and out of his grasp in a wild chase across South Africa, he might live long enough to discover just how in over his head he is.

The role of Frost, enigmatic, dangerous, with added unfathomable moral compass, is something Washington excels at and can do in his sleep, but he's played that card perhaps too many times for it to seem fresh. Reynolds fares even less well, partly due to the fact that his character's appeal is supposed to rest on his rookie - and therefore vulnerable - status as compared to Frost. Yet when action is required Weston, shifts into high gear easily, besting opponents in fights and improvising in high speed car chases. His transformation toward the end as he learns more about the agency he once blindly served (and inevitably comes to empathise more with Frost) never feels earned, maybe because we've spent too much time watching him in car chases as opposed to really sitting down to talk to Frost.

There is also the strange problem that both main actors both mumble and speak rapidly a lot, perhaps to emphasise the realism of their scenario, but it is often hard to know what they are saying. To be fair, Reynolds and Washington throw themselves into the action with gusto and let themselves get knocked around (they are involved in about 10 car crashes), and the film's failings are mainly not their fault. Given more charismatic and surprising characters to play with, they could do better. Certainly this is film that could've used a sense of humour.

Much of what director Espinosa sets out to do to make Safe House unique in a crowded field simply doesn't work well enough. He tries a few shuffles of shot sequences in various scenes with overlaid dialogue, but this arty trick just seems out of sync with what is a by-the-numbers action film. The choice of location seems intriguing at first, but as with many American films abroad, the Cape Town backdrop simply feels by the end that is has served as a nice shooting gallery for high octane reckless destruction. Where the Bourne and Bond films differed was that they better used the locations to heighten the tension and create interesting set pieces that furthered the story. Safe House tries this, with a chase/shootout sequence set in a giant football stadium and a rooftop favela battle amongst others, but location isn't enough on its own and you won't see anything new done in these locations. And as for the locals, they are either bystanders, or are on screen just long enough to get killed after interacting with Washington for a few minutes (this happens at least three times, a mid conversation bullet to the head being the modus operandi).

Likewise, the film's revelation of the key villain, its underlying conspiracy, and the final outcome are all highly predictable almost to the very second they occur, all of which undercuts much of the emotional impact of Weston's journey from rookie to grizzled cynic, a journey clearly set up to parallel Frost's. Ultimately this attempt to bolt Washington's ability to play a antagonist/protagonist who might just as quick as kill you than save you on to a Bourne-type spy thriller, doesn't do anywhere near enough to make it stand out in the crowd.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2012
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Safe House packshot
When a safe house is attacked, a young agent finds himself on the run with the man who was hiding there.
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Director: Daniel Espinosa

Writer: David Guggenheim

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patrick, Vera Farmiga

Year: 2012

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, South Africa


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