Friday, February 17, 2012
If the trailer for Safe House has you thinking you’ve seen it all before, you’d be right. But if you like a solidly made thriller with lots of fighting, that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying this one.
The déjà vu starts with the premise, which is part Training Day and part Haywire. As he did in Training Day, Denzel Washington plays an ethically compromised veteran of a law enforcement agency (this time around, the CIA) who schools a naïve recruit (Ryan Reynolds) on how things really work. And, as in Haywire and countless other spy-versus-spy movies, Denzel and Reynolds’s characters are agents on the run who must fight for their lives as they figure out who is trying to kill them and who—if anyone—they can trust.
Shot largely with that grainy, high-contrast, desaturated look that signals gritty reality in so many pictures these days, Safe House doesn’t do anything new, but it goes through its paces with style.
You want cool characters performing impressive physical feats? You can’t get much cooler than Denzel. Playing rogue former CIA agent turned legend Tobin Frost, he starts out a little hipper than usual before shedding the soul patch, truncated Afro, and shades for his usual clean-shaven look. But however he disguises himself, there’s no missing the bemused intelligence in his eyes, or mistaking that loping gait as he carves through a crowd.
As Matt, the young agency case worker who starts out as Tobin’s guard and winds up as his protégé, Reynolds earns his cool-guy credentials too, and not just because he looks so good when he takes his shirt off (though that doesn’t hurt). Matt’s loss of his illusions is the emotional heart of the film, and Reynolds makes every one count, breaking down the all-American innocence that is often all he’s called on to project piece by piece.
Granted, some of the hand-to-hand combat he and Denzel keep getting drawn into feels a bit canned (the two times when one of our guys wrestles someone holding a deadly object inches from our guy’s face were two too many for me), but for the most part the fighting is well staged. And thankfully, it’s always shot and edited without that too-close, shaky camerawork that makes it impossible to see—or, ultimately, care—who’s doing what to whom.
The twisty story is almost always easy to follow, too—sometimes to a fault. It’s clear from almost the first scene who’s orchestrating all the mayhem, for instance, which makes Tobin and Matt look dumber than they’re supposed to and turns the big reveal at the end into a bit of a yawn.
The filmmakers don’t do much with their urban settings, though the title cards and script keep making a point of telling us we’re in Capetown. Aside from a rooftop chase scene in Langa Township, in which the runners keep crashing right through the thin tin shanty roofs and onto the dirt floors below, the movie might have been filmed in almost any modern city. But the countryside around the city looks spectacular, as long shots and aerial shots linger on the majestic landscape while Matt and Tobin drive to another safe house after their first is broken into.
The supporting cast is generally fine. The always rock-solid Brendan Gleeson is uncharacteristically—and unsettlingly—bureaucratic as Matt’s boss, and an alarmingly elderly-looking Sam Shepard turns in a crisp performance as the head of the CIA, a sly old fox who clearly knows far more than he will ever let on. As another senior CIA agent, Vera Farmiga cuts back on her usual scene-stealing tics, though she still widens her eyes and tightens her mouth a little too much to lose herself in the character she plays rather than vying with her for our attention.
But no sooner would something like that pull me out of the story than the filmmakers pulled me back in. One trick they used a lot early on to amp up the energy before the action heated up was playing two or three quiet scenes that involve the same person simultaneously, chopping them into smaller bits and cross-cutting between them.
That may be a bit of a gimmick, but it’s also a smart way of adding interest to scenes that might otherwise feel a little too pedestrian.
Written for TimeOff