Monday, February 13, 2012

Safe House - Theatrical Review




SAFE HOUSE



Release Date: February 10, 2012

Denzel Washington is one of the finest actors working today but in recent years he has made some either ill-informed or just plain clumsy decisions when it comes to the films he is a part of. Safe House continues this unfortunate trend but it also isn't nearly as bad as one might think.




Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 10:00 am February 12, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 54 min
Studio: Universal

Biases:
Loves: Denzel Washington
Likes: Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, action/spy genre
Neutral: That shaky cam/documentary style of filmmaking
Hates: The inherent lack of originality in this very run of the mill genre
See: The Bourne films instead


I don't know what I was expecting from Safe House. The previews and trailers made it look like another generic action flick and that is kind of what it turned out to be. So should I be upset with it that it didn't strive to be something more than that? I'm not sure exactly. I suppose all I was looking for was some cheap thrills and to watch two solid actors go through the motions and it at least delivered on those points. I can't say it let me down on those accounts and thus I find myself having some severe mixed feelings on the film as a whole. While I believe it will appease most general viewers who are just looking for something to pass the time I just can't shake the feeling that with the star power associated with the film that it should have been something much more than what it is.

Junior CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is currently on his twelfth month babysitting a government safe house in the middle of Cape Town South Africa. When not running around the city with his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder), his days at work usually consist of sitting around the empty building throwing a ball at the wall in hopes of some day getting the big promotion that has been consistently promised to him by his boss David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson). Opportunity comes a knocking when a covert team of soldiers bring in the notorious traitor Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) to his safe house for interrogation. It doesn't take long for things to spiral out of control however as they all come under attack by a group of unknown assailants. Matt takes Tobin and narrowly escapes the assault but their not in the clear just yet as they attempt to piece together what happened and Matt tries to keep Tobin under control long enough to turn him in.

Matt wonders when he will finally get out of his safe house.

There is a really good idea for a movie buried deep beneath this cliche ridden exercise in redundancy. Think about it for a second. How many times have we seen a movie involving spies, CIA agents, FBI agents and just about any other government spook you can think of where they have to either make it to a safe house to hide out or must interrogate someone in a secure location. The one thing that we never see is the person in charge of the safe house they are using. The idea of seeing these extremely familiar scenes from the perspective of this fairly normal and everyday guy is kind of intriguing to me. Now I know that is not what this movie was selling itself as and it isn't what I was expecting or hoping for when I went to see it actually. These thoughts came to mind as I sat there watching another car chase, another hand to hand fist fight, another scene with a bunch of analysts sitting in a room tracking a target and yet another scene where the older agent tells the younger agent how things really work.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that. Many fine films have used that formula as their bedrock, most notably the Bourne series which set the bar for every other spy thriller to come after it. It's just that I wish someone would have recognized the opportunity this set up afforded them. I would have loved to have seen a movie where we got to see all sorts of different people that come and go to this one particular safe house. To maybe see the action from a different point of view. Instead of seeing how the prisoner got there and what happens after they leave it would have been interesting to just see that one part of the process from the eyes of a man who must sit there and bare witness to what happens in that safe house which he is in charge of, a place he is almost imprisoned in on a daily basis. I'm not even saying it had to be that. Just something, anything other than all this other stuff we have seen done to death in countless other movies before it (and much better ones I might add).


Tobin Frost is the type of guy you don't want in your head.

Now I want to clarify that I by no means am holding any of my wishes for what this COULD have been against it. Those were merely me spit balling what a lost opportunity this was. But my willingness to put aside my wishes in no way disregards all the other issues I have with it. Safe House is one of those films where you enjoy it as you watch it but mere minutes after it is over you might be hard pressed to remember anything significant about it. Does that mean it is a bad movie? No, not at all. However something must be said when you have a powerful actor like Denzel Washington in a lead role and a constantly surprising Ryan Reynolds starring opposite him and they are the only redeeming aspects of the entire film.

That's right, both Washington and Reynolds deliver the goods even if the movie itself doesn't. Denzel is quickly reaching that point in his career (or has he already gotten there?) where he can sleepwalk through roles like this, the imprisoned man who secretly isn't as bad as we first suspect is a role that is tailor made for the actor's gifts where he can be charming and menacing at the same time. I like Denzel in parts like this, he brings a dignity to his performance that makes you want to cheer him on even if he does seem like a fairly shady guy. Reynolds on the other hand you can tell with roles like this and the criminally overlooked Buried from a couple years back that the guy has a hunger and passion for acting that just seeps through in his more dramatic performances. He always seems like he is out to prove something and even when the material lets him down he is usually able to still make an impression. Whether that impression is good or bad depends on your outlook for the man but personally I really like him in roles like this.

Matt contemplates whether he should make a stand or run.

With both actors on the ball it should come as no surprise that the best parts of Safe House comprise of the scenes with both Washington and Reynolds together. Thankfully the pair are given a lot of time to shoot the shit as they move from location to location evading their mysterious pursuers which makes the more conventional parts of the film go down a whole lot easier. Although I am going to be bitching quite a bit about the structure of the film here in just a second I want to say right now that the film's faults could have been a whole lot worse if not for its two lead actors. The only time I even became aware of the fact that the only thing holding everything together were those two was during the middle section of the film, which was probably the only time I started checking my watch by the way, when their paths diverge for a little bit. All of a sudden my interest level dropped drastically.

That encapsulates everything I had a problem with in the film, everything where those two were either separated or any scene involving secondary characters I could give a shit about. I understand that the two of them couldn't be in every scene of the entire movie, hell they don't even cross paths until a good half hour in. The problem is that the actual story or plot isn't enough to carry the rest of film. Whenever it starts focusing on the people at CIA headquarters (in Langley by the way, which the film makes sure we know every single time we get that sweeping shot of the building) it becomes a huge yawnfest. Every single scene at the CIA could have easily been lifted from a half dozen other movies and you wouldn't even be able to tell. I would even go so far as to say that it is the exact same set used in the last Bourne movie (Universal also makes those movies so that isn't as crazy as it sounds) which would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Tobin isn't big on mercy.

That is just an example of how lazy this movie is when it comes to things that make up the movie as a whole. And of course we get served every single cliche in the book while at the CIA. When we are given a run down of the entire history for Tobin Frost mere minutes after he is in custody,...tell me if you heard this one before. He was one of our nations best operatives, his skills were unmatched in interrogation and manipulation...that is until one day when he turned rogue and now he is America's enemy number one. He is the type of guy who the CIA would pull out all the stops for and negate all treaties in order to find out what he knows and get him home as soon as possible. I didn't so much take issue with the character of Tobin but more how that information was delivered to us by your usual pretty faced analyst girl as a whole room of the CIA's best look on and drop everything they are doing.

It doesn't stop there though, as soon as Matt becomes a real player they quickly throw his face up on the screen just after the head of the CIA barks out, "I want to know everything about this guy like yesterday!". I was waiting for the obligatory line, "I even want to know what his mother had for breakfast this morning!". Guess what? Within minutes they know everything about him from his childhood to his current daily habits. Usually I can suspend my disbelief for these rather ridiculous scenes as I have done many times before but I have seen not only these exact scenarios before but also IN THE SAME DAMN ROOM! If I wasn't so good at recognizing actors I would half suspect these are the same damn people to boot. Then guess what happens next? Since no one was supposed to know where the safe house was they now might have a mole to deal with...oh snap! So now everyone starts throwing around standard mole hunt lines such as "He's turned!", "He's gone rogue", "Their working together now!", "How well do you know this guy?", "Can he be trusted?" and my personal favorite "He's working on his own now. He will do anything to finish the job".

Matt learns the ropes real quick.

I haven't even mentioned the very convenient way that Matt locates Tobin after they get split. I am going to be as delicate as possible here with spoilers. So earlier Matt is transporting Tobin somewhere, Tobin attempts to make a turn he wasn't supposed to out of nowhere and it appeared to be him just messing with Matt. Well guess what? That little incident provided Matt the key clue as to Tobin's whereabouts. How did he deduce this you ask? Because Matt remembered the name on the sign for the street Tobin was going to turn down. Now, I ask you...how the f**k would anybody ever put that together? Before you start getting on me for hating on such a small and insignificant part of the movie I want to state that the movie, as generic as it was, had been pretty good when it came to logic and character motivations. Matt made all the right decisions up to that point given his lack of field experience and Tobin played on that perfectly. But the fact that he traced back a thought of a random left turn and not only did it provide him with a place to start but it lead him RIGHT TO THE GUY! And the name on the sign was for a city...a f**king city! Yeah, he narrowed down his search by looking for a guy that Tobin might go to but give me a break.

Then you have the ending to the film, which I will not spoil for you so don't worry. The only thing really worth mentioning is the reveal of the mole and my god did I see that one coming a mile away. Not only did I call it at about the half way point of the movie but the reveal itself was just so dam lame. Person A to person B, "I know why all of this is happening". Person B to person A, "Well, that's too bad"...BANG! Seriously? By that point I was so done with this so called "plot" that I really didn't care anymore. Then the reveal of what everyone was after was even more cliche than anything I have said thus far, and that's saying something. This movie is a text book example of playing it safe, hire two actors that get the job done, put them in a movie where they get to do some action stuff, make sure there is a bad guy who doesn't get revealed until the very end, have the rookie prove his stuff by the end and make sure that everything gets resolved as neatly as possible.

I guess that is my main beef with the film now that I think about it. It just doesn't take any chances. There was not one point in this movie that felt like something new or fresh. You could point towards the scenes in the actual safe house as something slightly different than the norm but even those don't last long enough to make any sort of real impression one way or the other. This movie plays like it is just checking everything off on a list marked "Everything you need to make a successful but harmless movie that will be forgotten in a month". Even the title reads like something taken off a generic list of unused movie titles. The real shame is that if someone would have had some sort of creativity this could have been made into something unique or at least something that didn't just copy what others had done countless times before and coast off that success. Sure, there is a nifty car chase, two great actors and a couple of cool fights but you know what? In a short time I will have forgotten most of it and you most likely will too. This movie should have been called "Playing It Safe" and I suggest you do the same and just...


RENT IT


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