There are times when you sit down to watch a movie that should work brilliantly and simply marvel at its failing to do so. Put together two good (or one great and one good) actors, let them spend much of the movie sparring with one another verbally and physically, throw in some car chases and gun fights, then add an international conspiracy and you ought to be good to go. Right? Well, not in the case of Safe House (2012).
Starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, Safe House is the tale of one low level CIA agent, bored with a career that involves watching an empty safe house for hours a day, suddenly ending up in the thick of things when the world’s biggest big bad comes to call. As one might expect, Reynolds plays our young, naïve hero, Matt Weston, and Washington takes the role of the big bad, Tobin Frost. Frost is an ex-CIA agent who went bad for some unknown reason but now finds himself needing (temporary) protection from the US.
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan for either man. Weston’s first big case turns into a disaster when armed thugs take out the team assigned to interrogate Frost. Plus, Frost’s escape from custody so that he can sell his big secret doesn’t go as smoothly as he might like. Along the way, the old guy teaches the young one something about the world, and the young guy maybe—just maybe—affects the world-weary villain.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa with a script from David Guggenheim, Safe House turns out to be a paint by numbers affair. One can see all the twists and turns from the beginning, even the ones which make no logical sense because there’s nothing in the script to support them (they’re still easy to spot because we’ve all seen this sort of film before and know where the twists are supposed to be).
Washington isn’t phoning it in here, but for one of the two leads of the film, he is given astoundingly little character to develop. The script, rather than develop just why he’s a bad guy, instead humanizes him, making us see and accept his point of view. It then never gives us the leap from his logical big-brother-really-isn’t-all-that-great world view to his transformation to super bad guy.
If Washington isn’t given much to play, Reynolds is given nothing at all. The attempt to humanize Frost may be misguided, but it adds another facet to the character. Weston is just the straightforward neophyte who slowly figures out the world before the credits roll.
With little for the main actors to do, it’s not surprising that the able supporting cast don’t have much for them either. Nora Arnezeder, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, and Joel Kinnaman all make appearances in the film, but tend to add little. The one stand out in the supporting cast is Ruben Blades, who is exceptionally fun to watch but present far too little to make much of a dent.
There are a number of action sequences in the film, most of which play relatively well. However, without characters to truly care about, the stakes are never raised high enough to cause the viewer to be engrossed in any of the more tense moments. Additionally, the actual fight within the safe house has the two main characters doing next to nothing and, inexplicably, the crack CIA team of torturers present look terrified as soon as the firefight breaks out. Sure, everyone has things which scare them, but the notion that these guys would lose it simply because of some gunplay seems horribly out of place.
Safe House is just one of those films which never really gets going, choosing instead to plod along for nearly two hours, offering up just enough to keep one from turning it off. There are better examples of the genre and better performances by both the leads.
What the film does have here is a pretty good set of visuals. There is some trouble differentiating one thing from another during dark sequences, but when better, lit the level of detail is high. The film does feature a good deal of grain which adds to the gritty sense DP Oliver Wood attempts to impart to the proceedings and it looks excellent here. The sound design, the release sports a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, is brilliant, placing the viewer in the midst of the action and the city. You will certainly feel like you are there. The sound mixing, however, is terribly problematic. I know I’ve complained about this sort of thing before, but this is a particularly bad example. To make the dialogue audible requires a sound level nearly double what makes the effects and music a reasonable volume.
The Blu-ray release of Safe House comes with a digital copy as well as a DVD, the ability to watch with Universal’s “Second Screen” to access information during the film, and a number of featurettes. Each featurette takes one through a different aspect of the film from the hand-to-hand combat to the gunfights to how the movie itself came to be (apparently the script made a list of the screenplays that weren’t good enough to be made into a movie one year). Other featurettes also cover a rooftop chase, a discussion of the real CIA and filming in Cape Town. All are vaguely informative, but none are exceptionally brilliant nor make themselves a must watch.
As stated above, there are better examples of spy thrillers out there, ones which are more fun, have better characters, and are simply more interesting. If Safe House happens to be on TV you won’t find your time wasted, but it isn’t worth searching out.