Review: 'Safe House' Has Bad-Ass Denzel Washington & Solid Action
by Jeremy Kirk
February 10, 2012
There's nothing quite like watching Denzel Washington go all bad-ass on a group of bad guys. He's calm. He breathes very deliberately. He even emits an aura of peace about him before all hell breaks loose. He's usually the one causing said hell to break loose. Even then, when he's ripping villains apart and laughing about his partner, usually a rookie, throwing verbal jabs at him, the man remains calm somehow. This is something director Daniel Espinosa (with his first American film) understands about Washington, and he utilizes it to neck-breaking lengths in Safe House. But thankfully, that's not where this film's merits end.
A gritty, action-packed thriller that lends itself to cliche and exposition at times, Safe House ultimately bursts through as a very serious, very amplified, and very suspenseful film. Oh, did we mention Denzel Washington kicks ass in it, because he does. Washington plays Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who is caught in Cape Town, South Africa and sent to the CIA safe house there for interrogation. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a fresh-out-of-the-academy rookie stationed at the Cape Town safe house to ensure of its upkeep. Weston spends his days sitting in the safe house, waiting for something, anything, to happen, and fantasizing about a transfer to Paris where he intends to take his girlfriend. All of that changes when Frost is transported to his detail, though.
Not long after Frost arrives, a group of unknown soldiers bursts in, killing everyone they see and looking for Frost in the process. Weston escapes with Frost in tow, and, as the two work their way through the city to another safe house, they fend off attacks from the soldiers, try to sort out how exactly the safe house's cover was blown, and play mind games that come from Frost attempting to get into the rookie's head.
For all of its two hour run-time, Espinosa never lets Safe House slow to a crawl. Instead, he keeps the action pumping, taking breaks here and there to build on either the relationship between Frost and Weston or the overarching conspiracy Weston is trying to figure out - the team of men after them are being directed by someone within CIA walls. It helps that Espinosa's lead actors are as charismatic as Washington and Reynolds. You find your fickle nature at work each time one of them is the focus of a scene. Even with Frost, you see his amoral nature at work early in the film, how he'll gladly let a civilian walk into death in order to ensure his own escape, but you find yourself on his side in some of the more dangerous situations. But acting and character identity aside, Espinosa balances the two leads with a steady hand even if much of his action is anything but.
The action in Safe House isn't the worst example of spastic motion out there. It's more akin to Paul Greengrass, the go-to comparison when it comes to shaky cam action. Like Greengrass, though, Espinosa makes sure the geography of the scene and the actions going on within it are easy to follow. You never find yourself questioning who is fighting, where they are, or who is getting the upper hand. The action plays out before you, and you're able to sit back and take in the heft of the intensity and the R-rated punch it packs. Whether it's in the titular safe house, on the streets of Cape Town where some very good chase sequences are crafted, or within the concrete walls of Cape Town Stadium, Espinosa uses every piece of his setting to build on the terrain and, likewise, the atmosphere.
While the slower moments in Safe House never grind the film to a halt, they do end up delivering the film's biggest flaws. Chiefly the conspiracy. Safe House bounces back and forth between Cape Town and Langley, Virginia where CIA agents and analysts are working to get Frost and Weston to their next, safe location. But, as the conspiracy suggests, one of the leads in this assignment are not who they appear to be. David Guggenheim's screenplay gives us three, potential culprits for who is in charge of the group after Frost and Weston. While three possibilities for who the villain is doesn't give much room to work with - it's not difficult to sort out early in the film who the main baddie is - casting actors like Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard in those roles is a big advantage. You know whoever ends up being the villain will bring scenery chewing to a new level once they are revealed, and he or she doesn't disappoint.
Those scenes in Langley also serve up some unhealthy dishes of exposition. This usually comes in the form of CIA analysts - such random characters that they're seemingly never played by the same actor from one scene to the next - explaining who someone is, where they fit in with Frost, and where they were last seen. It's forgivable once in a film, but Safe House goes back to that exposition well at least three times. By the end we know a lot about Frost, Weston, and some of the other major players here, but a bit of mystery wouldn't have hurt. Cutting out all the exposition would have even helped.
Reminiscent of the Ethan Hawke/Washington relationship in Training Day, the two lead characters in Safe House work together as much as they butt heads, and each actor brings their own virtues to the table. Washington never feels like he's going through the motions or falling back on the typical isms that turned Unstoppable into an "SNL" skit. On the other side, Reynolds holds his own very well here, giving the audience a believable entry point into the story and turning on the dramatic chops a time or two, giving you insight into his character usually without saying a word. The rest of Safe House could have benefited from Reynolds' muted demeanor.
Still, the action here comes in and blasts those moments of predictability and clunky information dumps from your mind like a dummy being thrown from a crashed car. Much of it is rock solid, and aided by two leads who work just as well together as they do apart, Safe House ends up being an actioner that runs far ahead of the pack. It doesn't hurt that Denzel Washington is such a bad-ass, either.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10