Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA Agent eager for a new assignment. After almost a year as the "landlord" of a safe house in Cape Town, he wants to transfer to a more high-profile gig. He spends his days bouncing a ball against the walls, trying to stave off boredom. He is surprised to get a last minute reservation; the CIA has captured Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a notorious and very dangerous ex-CIA agent who is now considered a traitor. No sooner has Frost been brought in than a group of renegades break into the safe house and start shooting. Matt manages to smuggle Tobin out and the chase begins.
Written by David Guggenheim (his second film) and directed by Daniel Espinosa (his first Hollywood film), "Safe House" has all the makings of a top-notch thriller directed by Tony Scott. In fact, I thought it was a Tony Scott film when I saw the trailer for the first time. But that isn't a compliment.
The film begins by establishing both lead characters. We spend a significant amount of time watching Tobin weave in and out of the crowds and dark alleyways of Cape Town. Eventually, he meets another agent and buys a chip containing some very damaging information. Once he takes possession, it seems like everyone is out to get him. But Tobin has some moves and manages to escape them every time. Well, almost every time…
Matt wakes up next to his beautiful French girlfriend and they talk about the future. She wants to move back to France and he is itching for a different assignment. He pushes his mentor (Brendan Glesson) to get him reassigned. At lunch, she says she doesn't have to be at work for an hour, they should go back home and make love. At work, he walks the empty halls of the 'clinic' and eventually starts bouncing a ball against the wall.
All of this is actually interesting because it helps to establish and build each of these characters, giving us some insight into their lives and we realize each one is in a very different place with a completely different skill set. Through the course of the chase, each person will have to rely on the other and use their skills to help both of them survive.
Once the men break into the safe house and start shooting, everything starts to go wrong.
As soon as Tobin arrives, he size up Matt. The men who have captured Tobin push the younger agent to one side, treating him like the insignificant innkeeper he is. Nothing escapes Tobin's eyes and he turns on the Hannibal Lecter-ese; the crazy, super-intelligent mad man persona. He starts to goad Matt, saying things like "Tick Tock" to get the younger, less experienced agent to make a rash decision. He doesn't expect Matt to be of any consequence.
Matt is inexperienced, but because he wants a more exciting post, he isn't about to let anything happen to Tobin and smuggles him out steps ahead of the men who stormed the safe house.
Once Matt and Tobin start to run through the streets, trying to evade the men, the film becomes incredibly routine.
These characters are a fun thing to watch. For a few minutes. And then you realize you have seen these types of performances a million times before. It just becomes so boring, so quickly.
Washington is a great actor and always brings a palpable intensity to his performances. And Tobin Frost is no exception. From the moment we first set eyes on Tobin, we know there is something going on beneath the surface. He isn't telling everything to everyone. He has some ulterior motive to his actions.
But he has done this type of character before. And there really isn't anything new in this portrayal.
I think Washington is a cinematic tour de force, but he needs better direction. He works with Tony Scott on an abnormally frequent basis. Many successful directors and actors have created legacies together. Scorcese and DeNiro and DiCaprio. Hitchcock and Grant and Stewart. Ford and Wayne. Huston and Bogart. There are many, many more. And you can just tick off the names of movies that will stand the test of time associated with each of these teams. On the flipside, many successful, well-known actors continue to work with the same people. This doesn't stretch their talents and they continue to make the same films. Washington has the talent to join DeNiro, Grant and Stewart. He doesn't deserve to be lumped in with actors like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler.
Ryan Reynolds has made an interesting transformation over the last few years. He used to do a lot of broad comedies, a lot of comedies filled with low brow humor. Then, he made "The Proposal" and has been in some action films, transforming his whole persona, trying to become a big-time movie star. His status is certainly on the rise, but the lackluster performance of "Green Lantern" and "The Change-Up" last summer didn't help. But what the diversity of his films shows is that he can do action, he can do comedy, he can do low brow. He is also a very good-looking guy, which doesn't hurt. People obviously see the potential and believe he will deliver on it.
Reynolds does a nice job with Matt. We immediately get who he is; his ambitions, his unfulfilled promise, his boredom. These all paint a very different picture of who he actually is. Than, all of a sudden, everything in his life changes and he will have to use all of the long-dormant skills and lessons, many never used and only learned, to stay alive.
"Safe House" holds a lot of promise, but it has a number of problems creating the equivalent of a wash. It isn't a good thing when your film is reminiscent of Tony Scott's work. When someone mentions Tony Scott, my guess is the first thing you will think of is over-editing. Editing is an art form, used to tell a story, to keep the audience engaged. How is it possible for anyone to get engaged in a story when no shot lasts more than a few seconds? Can you watch a film with a constantly moving hand-held camera? No. These are the tell-tale signs of Scott's work. It almost seems like he uses the over-editing to hide his lack of story telling ability and his lack of creativity. Because he doesn't give us time to concentrate on anything, it is more difficult for most to notice the problems. Espinosa is clearly influenced by Scott. Too bad he didn't look to Ridley, Tony's brother, for inspiration.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Using that philosophical question lets take a brief look at this suspense film. One of the key factors to a successful suspense film is that it surprises the viewer. If a suspense film doesn't have any surprises, can the audience enjoy it? Very early on, you will be able to guess who is pulling all of the strings behind the scenes. When this becomes evident, the film just becomes a long chase and you will probably be able to guess how that will end. And the little twists and turns are all predictable as well because they have to happen. The filmmakers know they need to keep us guessing, so they throw in these little moments, these little surprises.
"Safe House" is okay. But it promises much more than it delivers. And for that reason, it is truly disappointing.