Monday, February 13, 2012

Does SAFE HOUSE Bring the House Down?


- Safe House is a very solid, very entertaining early-in-the-year action flick. It's fairly straightforward and not exactly genre-busting, but it maintains a breakneck pace, is packed with great chases and shoot-outs, and has a reliably badass turn from Denzel Washington. I don't know, I felt like some of the critics were overly harsh on this one. I know for me, after seeing some anemic actioners of late (Contraband, anyone?) it was nice to see a movie that delivered both riveting action and some genuine starpower. Denzel rarely fails to deliver in these sorts of roles, and even if, at this point, he tends to fall back on a lot of classic Denzel-isms, well, it was still pretty great to see him kicking ass left and right in Safe House.

Denzel plays the aptly-named Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA super-agent who, years ago, turned his back on his country and went rogue - selling state secrets to the highest bidders, and quickly rising to the top of the Most Wanted list. However, when Frost gets a hold of a chip containing extremely valuable, extremely classified info, he very quickly makes himself an even bigger target than before. While Frost had previously been able to keep to the shadows, he's now got a squad of trained assassins after him. In order to protect his own life (and possibly for other reasons ...), Frost turns himself in at the American Embassy in South Africa. As the CIA gets word of this stunning turn of events, they now face the task of transporting Frost to a CIA safe house in a relatively quiet and remote part of the world. A CIA team is dispatched to assist with the transfer, but ultimately, the man tasked with safeguarding this high-profile prisoner is a young CIA safe house keeper, Matt Weston - played by Ryan Reynolds. Weston isn't used to much action at work - mostly, he sits around at an empty facility, biding his time and hoping for a promotion to a more exciting role. Eventually though, all hell breaks loose at the safe house, and suddenly, Frost - one of the world's most dangerous men, and a master manipulator - is the sole responsibility of an out-of-his-league (or is he?) Weston. And thus Safe House becomes a violent game of cat and mouse between the wily, experienced, ruthless Frost and the dogged, determined, but wet-behind-the-ears Weston.

Denzel brings a huge amount of charisma and effortless badassery to Frost. He molds Frost into a cool, collected, yet incredibly dangerous man who's seen and done it all. And yet, Frost's icy exterior helps to hide the fact that he's in many ways a broken man - a man who's lost all faith in his country and in the system, and who's adopted a sort of nihilistic, let-'em-burn attitude, even as he remains partly motivated by a sense of justice - a desire to expose the corruption that runs rampant in the same institutions that want him crucified. The whole cool-yet-deadly thing is a schtick that, yes, Denzel has employed many times over the years. And he isn't necessarily bringing a lot new to the table in Safe House. But he does give Frost enough flourish that you can't take your eyes off of him, and it's the little details that make the character pop. As for Reynolds, this is a good role for him. It capitalizes on his natural intensity, but it's also not just him wise-cracking and acting goofy. Reynolds mixes it up in some absolutely brutal action scenes, and keeps the smirking to a minimum. His character in Safe House is nervous, shaky, but persistent - it's a different sort of character for Reynolds, but one he takes to well.

The movie is also filled with great actors in supporting turns. Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Patrick ... all are good here, though yeah, all play roles that they could pretty much do in their sleep. It's funny, because Farmiga played almost exactly the same role less than a year ago in Source Code. I enjoy all three actors though, and I think they help elevate and lend some gravitas to parts that might not have worked as well in less capable hands.

Now, one thing I will say about Safe House: I was really impressed with the action scenes. The film adopts a very Bourne-esque, fast-cutting style, which is almost always a bad sign in my book. But director Daniel Espinosa is one of the few I've seen who approaches the level of a Paul Greengrass in terms of making the style work for them. Even though there are some rapid edits and shaky cam, the action flows very well, and there are some killer car chases, foot chases, brawls, and gun fights. One car chase in particular midway through the film really floored me - it kept teasing a finish only to keep on going, creating a really fun thrill-ride effect.

Between the strong lead performances and the fast-paced action, Safe House is never boring. Its main problem is simply that the plot and script are nothing special. The various twists and turns don't have as much impact as they should, because the supporting characters are not well-fleshed out, and too much of Frost's past is left ambiguous, leaving us unable to connect the dots as to what, exactly, motivates his actions behind some vague explanations. Furthermore, there is a pretty useless romance angle with Reynolds and his exotic, French girlfriend. For some reason, in the middle of Weston running around trying to contain a dangerous guy like Frost, the plot focuses on how he hasn't called his special ladyfriend to tell her where he is. Don't get me wrong, the general premise of Safe House is interesting and has a lot of potential. But the movie doesn't give the plot or characters enough depth to keep that premise from feeling generic. The film's ending only emphasizes the plotline's failings, as a final twist meant to wow us instead elicits a much more "meh" reaction.

So yes, there are some pretty unremarkable, run-of-the-mill elements to Safe House, but I still liked it a lot. It just has an overall vibe of badassery - a gritty look and feel, stylishly brutal action, and a scene-stealing performance from Denzel Washington. An all-time action classic? No. But a satisfying flick to satiate your action-movie needs? It's a safe bet.

My Grade: B+

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