Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
For a Denzel Washington Non-Event Movie (unlike, say, Philadelphia or American Gangster, or Malcolm X), Safe House isn’t too bad. It’s more like something from the Action Movie Buoyed up by The Presence of Denzel Washington Movie. If you liked Unstoppable, for instance, and thought that it would have been nothing special without Washington, then you will probably enjoy this movie. It keeps one comfortable and occupied between the flood of Oscar-bait movies and the announcement of the Oscars themselves, in that twilight zone where largely mediocre movies, movies the studios don’t have much faith in, are marketed heavily and then released. (Man on a Ledge, anyone? Red Tails?)
One funny thing that I marveled at during the movie is the uncanny resemblance Ryan Reynolds has to Chris Pine. Pine, who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek, was supposedly considered for Reynolds’ role. Pine also costarred with Denzel Washington in Unstoppable. Is what we once called the juvenile lead becoming so interchangeable? Not that these guys aren’t good actors- I hope they have interesting careers. I’m just glad I’m past the whole Chris Pine-Ryan Reynolds-Ryan Gosling triangle of confusion I was going through. Still working on the Seth Rogan-Jason Segel-Jonah Hill thing.
There are certainly things to hold your attention in this movie. I liked the cinematography- it had a noir-ish quality that in some of the darker scenes reminded me of Drive (that’s a good thing). I’m wondering if this burned out, saturated color scheme is going to be seen in future moody crime/suspense movies. With the violence and danger alive here, I wouldn’t mind the occasional absolutely clear wide-angle shot scenes (where the camera lens puts everything in the frame in sharp focus, so that the detail is richer) to emphasize the urgency of the situation.
The performances are first-rate. Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a low-level CIA operative who is the “housekeeper” at a “hotel” (that, of course, would be the titular safehouse). Naturally, he wants to be in the field (who doesn’t?). Of course, his friend/mentor at Langley (Brendan Gleeson, that fine Irish actor) tentatively says that he’ll talk to someone about it. Matt then kisses his fabulous European beauty of a girlfriend (of course), and goes to work at the safehouse, where he is surrounded by blank walls and fluorescent lights and banks of telephones. He feels so bored and insignificant, he sits in the hall and bounces the ball off it, catches it, and repeats the process. He evidently saw the last shot of The Great Escape.
Outside, Cape Town teems around his isolated pocket. There are scenes filmed in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, and to tell you the truth, living conditions haven’t improved that much since District 9. Tobin Frost, a character we’re rather wary about, makes a deal with some other guy, and things erupt into violence, leading to a getting-lost-in the-crowd chase. He eludes his pursuers, but as he is about to be caught, turns himself in to the American embassy. When the embassy people realize this is Tobin Frost, everyone has that stunned look on his or her faces, and things immediately go into action to “secure” him.
You see, Frost used to work for the CIA, but bolted and became a mercenary on the spy scene, selling information to the highest bidder. The man, through his many years with the CIA, has a deep understanding of the organization works. Matt, in the meantime, is alerted by his superiors that he is going to be receiving a “guest,” and jumps into action to receive Frost. He, like everyone else, also has a silent, stunned look on his face when the obligatory black sack is taken off Frost’s face and Matt (somehow) recognizes him. Matt, excited about proving himself, is eager to contribute to the operation but finds himself being thanked and asked to stand aside and let the other operatives do their work. Watching what happens next through an observing window, Reynolds really looks like a little kid who wants to be a soldier when he grows up.
So that’s what waterboarding looks like! And this is not supposed to be torture? Maybe the scene of the process being administered to Frost is meant to evoke some empathy with him. Call me weird, but I actually had empathy towards the interrogator/torturer, only because he is played by one of my favorite character actors, Robert Patrick, who here has a Jack Cassidy beard, making him look grandfatherly. That’s probably it. (I like Patrick because even though he plays the same kind of hard-nosed soldier, or cop, or spy, or android, he brings different nuances to every part. I even like him when he’s on the side of the angels- but The X-Files is the only example I have of that.)
As you would imagine, with each attempt to get information through the waterboarding, Frost catches his breath and pretty much asks for more. The torture only stops when the house is invaded on all sides, and, as the plot requires, Matt grabs Frost, commandeers a car, and escapes with his “package” in an undeniably exciting car chase. He calls the CIA in Langley, where he is told to get to another safehouse. I will admit, the last two-thirds of the movie are something of a twist on The Defiant Ones.
Washington and Reynolds have a good rapport with each other, with Frost trying to distract Matt, but at times becoming almost a friend/father figure. Reynolds gets the sense of inner conflict as Frost tells him things the CIA are likely to do to him once he returns to them. What’s interesting is the coded phrase Frost says the Company uses when someone is deemed expendable. I heard the same speech in Knight and Day. Hmmm. If this dialogue appears in two movies, then it’s got to be true, right?
Vera Farmiga is on hand, playing, as she did in Source Code, the humorless near-automaton of an authority figure, here with the CIA. I think she’s a great actress, but I miss that warm, sometimes breezy sexiness she had in the great Up in the Air, or even in the otherwise excreable Orphan. As her superior, Sam Shepard is all snarly and direct, similar to, but without the depth of Chris Cooper in Breach. (I feel so bad about Shepard and Jessica Lange breaking up after their long relationship. Maybe American Horror Story freaked him out too much, too.)
I am a big Law & Order fan, so I get a bit picky when it comes to realism in genre movies. (I have a friend who, when her family watches Law & Order, her father, a lawyer, shouts “Objection!” whenever something in the show does not reflect reality as we know it. I know the show is not naturalistic.) If I start questioning the “realism” of a movie while I’m watching it, it’s usually not a very good movie. However, if I watch a movie and don’t start to find faults until I get home, I consider it at least acceptable. Safe House is acceptable. At one point, Reynolds is pursuing Washington through a crowd, and we see shots of Washington’s back as he walks quickly. As soon as Reynolds catches up with him, I was praying to the good Lord above not to see the man turn around and be someone else. The movie did not choose the cliché here. However, the film showed us that once again, if you are thrown through a closed window, you will not only not cut yourself with numerous shards of glass, but you will hit the ground after falling several stories and sustain the same injuries as if you had just fallen out of bed.
Sorry to say that I’ve never seen Training Day, where Denzel Washington played a bad cop. He is such a versatile actor, and he plays a convincing “evil” but not completely unsympathetic character. George Clooney certainly proved that his characters can harbor evil in The Ides of March, and I’m sure that as these gentlemen age, we’ll be treated to an array of nuanced characters.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.