Safe House Review By Adam
Safe House is almost a film. It has star power, a (potentially) dynamic character at its center, a gritty/realistic aesthetic and a great location (South Africa), but almost everything about Safe House is slightly off. With a small amount of tweaking, Safe House could have been a knockout thriller. Instead, we have a film that shares the same notions as my school report cards: ‘ …has potential, just needs to focus.’ (I may or may not have had ADD).
Safe House starts of crackingly. In a clandestine deal, we see international criminal Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) acquire files from a rogue MI6 agent (Liam Cunningham). The minute the deal is done, Frost realises he has a tail (not literarily, you idiot. This isn’t Shallow Hal). In a (literally) breakneck series of events we see just how capable an operative Frost is. After stylishly dispatching a few of their ranks, Frost slips into an American consulate to avoid his adversaries. Whilst saving his hide, this action puts him straight back onto the CIA’s radar. The CIA decides to move Frost to a safe house (a secure, secret location used for espionage) in Cape Town, South Africa. The safe house in question is manned by greenhorn CIA operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Matt’s boring job becomes infinitely more exciting (and dangerous) when the traitorous Tobin Frost becomes his ‘house guest’. Frost’s incarceration puts him in direct contact with Weston, but can Weston control the ex-CIA interrogator? Or will he be another pawn in Frost’s game?
While Safe House is perfectly passable action entertainment, it does suffer from familiarity. Director Daniel Espinosa tries to duplicate the shaky thrills of the Bourne franchise and the over-caffeinated shooting style of Tony Scott (Man on Fire) – with mixed results. This film has jolts of dynamic action and kick-arse stunts, so it’s a shame he has decided to obscure them with elliptical camera-work. Bourne director Paul Greengrass chose to shoot his films in a particular style, one that mimicked the nature of his protagonist’s life. Jason Bourne was under constant threat and had to make split-second decisions, hence the frantic camera work. Espinosa tries to do the same in Safe House, but it feels like he is either playing fan-service, or being downright plagiaristic. Occasionally, we get a clear, coherent shot of the action and it is surpassingly more satisfying than trying to figure out what the fuck we are seeing. Also of note is this film’s rating. Despite carrying an ‘R’ tag, I could have sworn this film was shot for a PG-13 rating and maybe that’s why everything in this film is obscured. It has no explicit gore and maybe one use of the word ‘fuck’. Like almost every element of this film it feels confused and out of place – are we watching a smart, adult thriller or is this a broad, blockbuster action flick? It seems the crew behind Safe House wants to have their cake and eat it too: this means that, tonally, Safe House never gels.
Safe House boasts an impressive cast. While the film is primarily a two-hander between Reynolds and Washington, the production hasn’t skimped on the supporting players. We get Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard on the CIA ‘desk side’ of things and brief (but muscular) cameos from Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham and Ruben Blades as men on the action side of espionage. Denzel Washington is pretty damn good as Tobin Frost. Frost is treated like a bogeyman, a Hannibal Lecter of the spy game and it is obvious that Washington has taken this role seriously. He gives Frost a cat-like physicality – from the way Frost handles his gun to hovering on the peripheral of a few shots, Washington makes this role idiosyncratic. More problematic is Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston. I’m not the biggest fan of Reynolds – mainly due to his snarky and smug mannerisms – though I must note that neither are present in Safe House. As written, Matt Weston is meant to be insecure, untested and nervous, a pure counterpoint to the ice-cool demeanour of Tobin Frost (pun intended). So why the fuck did they cast Ryan Reynolds? The dude looks like a marble statue (he has a 12-pack), he used to nail Scarlet Johansson on a regular basis and has been voted ‘Sexiest Man Alive’. He must constantly strut down the street with the Bee Gees in his head. Why do I care about his looks or his private life? Because it bleeds into this film. I had a hard time buying him as a (relatively) average Joe, and so I should: the dude is elite. If they cast someone who could play twitchy well (like Colin Farrell), I think this film would be better off. With all that said, Reynolds can’t be accused of not trying. He makes Weston emotive to a fault; it looks like he is constantly on the verge of tears. Even though it may seem contradictory, I’m glad that Reynolds is going after different roles than that of ‘snarky, buff guy no. 1’.
Far and away, Safe House’s biggest flaw is its thin screenplay. Written by former ‘Us Weekly’ editor David Guggenheim, this script ignited a bidding war upon its release. This baffles me, as Safe House does not capitalise on a single one of its strengths. Tobin Frost is meant to be a master manipulator, yet we rarely see him ply his trade. This film should have had Frost constantly turning the screws on his captor, chipping away at him piece by piece. Alas, it seems Tobin’s primary skill is sprouting clichéd lines like ‘I’m already in your head’. Disappointingly, Safe House’s larger mechanics are perfunctory to a fault. Example: there is corruption in the CIA (no way!) and when we find out who the mole is we do not give a solitary fuck because the character hasn’t been set up enough for us to care. This turn of events is simply there because Guggenheim has seen it in other films and thinks we need it. I’m not in the minority here as even Denzel Washington called Safe House’s script ‘not good enough’. Despite a relatively high action quota, this film contains a huge amount of padding in between sequences. It ends up feeling like a series of bullet points instead of logical plot developments. If Guggenheim had used the downtime between gun battles to establish character, this may have been one of the better action releases of the year. Unfortunately, he did not.
Whinging aside, Safe House is a decent action flick that’s worth seeing for Washington’s confident performance. With a better script this could have been a knockout, but it never hits the next-level of badassery that Denzel ‘King Kong’ Washington is capable of e.g. the rockin’ Man on Fire.