Dir: Daniel Espinosa
Safe House is certainly a descriptively titled film, not because it gives you much of a flavour of what happens (there is actually only a little screen time spent in the titular location), but because it sums up rather well the problem at the centre of the film; it's safe. It's not so much a movie as it is an exercise in box ticking, finding a way to reheat previously used ingredients just differently enough to avoid a lawsuit, but not so differently that the mainstream audience will be challenged by seeing or hearing anything that is unlike anything they have seen 200 times before. Now, that's not always a terrible thing - I like an exciting genre exercise as much as the next guy - but Safe House never threw up anything to get my blood pumping.
The basic premise is this: Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a CIA defector who walks into an American consulate in Cape Town to avoid being killed by people chasing him. He's taken to a safe house staffed by bored low level operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Frost is taken there to be 'debriefed', but the safe house is breached and Weston must escape with Frost to make sure this valuable asset isn't killed or allowed to escape. A bog standard chase movie ensues.
The annoying thing about Safe House is that there's quite a bit of potential here. There's inherent drama - and something that, certainly, we haven't seen that often - in the idea of this traitor being captured somewhere where the law is unclear, and a moral drama ensuing as a less experienced man watches what happens, all confined to a small and hermetically sealed space. But no, things must go boom, and so the politics and morals of the situation are set aside for a(nother) grainy Bourne clone with Denzel Washington as a(nother) smirking badass and an(other) deeply predictable revelation about who the ultimate bad guy is - because clearly it's not going to be the big honking movie star whose face is on the poster.
Everyone here seems to be on autopilot. Screenwriter David Guggenheim's work is not so much a story as it is a collection of set pieces linked by infodumps that land with all the grace of King Kong attempting a pirouette, at least four times the film stops dead and 'treats' us to what amounts to an animated slideshow of background info, narrated by Vera Farmiga on the offchance that you are a cretin. Also specially made for cretins is the film's twist. I say twist, I mean utterly obvious two minutes in actual villain reveal. This twist is so stark staring obvious that in a better film it might pass for a satire of astonishingly lazy screenwriting.
To give director Daniel Espinosa some credit, if you like the Bourne style of action shooting (heavy grain, close quarters filming, fast cutting, shakycam) then you'll probably find these set pieces exciting and well executed, certainly they mark Espinosa out as a competent, fashionable, action director. Sadly for him though, that list above represents everything (well, not everything, but a lot of) that I hate about modern action cinema. The bitty structure and the shaking camera mean we lose the geography of the action scenes quite quickly, and also that action choreography becomes difficult to see, thus losing impact. Seriously, how hard is it to just let an action scene play out, much as Steven Soderbergh did recently in Haywire, which was no masterpiece, but had great fights that you could always understand. The general look of the film is also fashionable, but far from my tastes. It's swarming with grain, but that grain looks like it has been pushed, and become oversaturated and artificial, and so rather than having the desired effect of making the movie look like a gritty 70's production it makes it look over manipulated and ultra modern in an ugly way. Again, if that's what you like your movies to look like then this is well executed, but for me... no thanks.
The acting is also tremendously uninspired. Denzel Washington gives a softly spoken performance I think this is supposed to be menacing, but to me he just came off as being a bit sleepy much of the time. He has two facial expression settings for the duration of the film; menacingly stonefaced and smirking. Equally uninspired is Reynolds, who just doesn't seem to be having any fun, whicch is a shame, because when he is he can be an engaging lead, if no great shakes as an actor). The miniscule attempts at depth (like Reynolds' girlfriend played by gorgeous French actress Nora Arnezeder) fall flat, and talented support players like Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepherd and Robert Patrick are wasted. The saddest case is that of Vera Farmiga, who genuinely might be one of the two or three best actresses of her generation, and reminds me of a younger Jennifer Jason Leigh. Here she is reduced to repeating what a computer says for most of her screen time, and we can only hope she took this role to get some cash together for her next directorial project. Again, nobody is terrible, they are just asked to do so much less than each of them is capable of.
Overall I found Safe House a real chore. On the other hand, I can't deny that it competently goes through the modern action thriller motions. If you like this style of film then you'll probably find the central set piece at a Cape Town stadium genuinely thrilling, and a late hand to hand fight involving Reynolds viscerally entertaining. It's just not for me though, and if you also miss the days when you could make sense of action scenes, it's probably not for you either.