Safe House

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Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Written by: David Guggenheim

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick

A junior CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) administering a Safe House that’s attacked gets caught up in an espionage scandal when he goes on the run with a high priority prisoner (Denzel Washington).

For film fans out there, only seeing this trailer would leave you assuming that Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123, Deja Vu) had paired up with his muse Denzel Washington for another action film that will be ‘just O.K’ and utterly forgettable. I’m here to reassure you that Safe House pleasantly surprised in nearly every way possible.

One element that impressed me from the outset was that the film is set in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa. It’s not doubling for another city, it’s there in all its beauty (and in the sequences in the shanty town and tenements) squalor and personally when a large majority of espionage flicks are set in New York, London, Moscow, Rio etc. it’s a nice aesthetic relief to have a shiny new setting and the tangible, real elements that leak into the film. I hope not to spoil it for anyone but it almost exclusively takes place in Cape Town and the surrounding areas which made for a more claustrophobic thriller overall, but I digress.

Safe House surprises with a solid supporting cast with Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick but the film belongs to the leads, Ryan Reynolds and especially the wonderful two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington.

More often than not Reynolds is cast to be Van Wilder in essentially every role that he assays. It makes for utterly predictable and boring voids in the majority of his past films. I am delighted to say that Matt Weston was a fully formed and different character from the majority of the performances I’ve seen him in. Weston is a young, idealistic and ambitious field agent on his first assignment that is desperate to impress and get out of the boring ‘babysitting’ Safe House job. Unlike the overt smart arse and bravado that occupies his other characters, Matt is shy in the face of adversity and is affected by the deadly assassins pursuing his prisoner.

His prisoner is Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), the poster boy for the CIA until he went rogue in 2001 to trade in agency secrets. Washington is one of the greatest actors to be exposed on celluloid. It’s a tragedy that he doesn’t get enough leading roles that allow him to really stretch out. We’ll take him as the effortlessly badass Frost – who echoes Alonzo Harris from Training Day – but is really a kind of older, wiser Bourne. He’s simply hypnotic; he’s vocal cadence is rhythmic and his eyes are able to express and enunciate emotions without him changing his expression. His physical presence can be felt sitting in your seat.  Similar to someone like Liam Neeson in Taken, Washington’s Frost is totally believable in the physical exchanges that he has throughout the film. Denzel is one of the coolest men on the planet; and I’m glad that this film didn’t dim his powerful affect.

This is the first English language effort of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa and he’s clearly influenced by Tony Scott’s occasional jagged cutting between sequences and multiple fluid cameras that flow between the different character interactions. There’s also evidence of the Post-Greengrass (director of The Bourne Supremacy The Bourne Ultimatum) effect of rapid-fire cuts for car chase sequences. He framed the film very well, approaching each character with angles relative to each scene. He was rarely static and it made for frenetic viewing. Espinosa’s biggest strength was his portrayal of violence. There wasn’t any unrealistic action in Safe House (save an ever so slightly implausible car chase). The falls hurt, the shots were loud, and the hits were bone jarring and blood curdling in equal measure.  Espinosa’s approach to violence was the much more affective Die Hard style instead of the ridiculous Fast Five.

Writer David Guggenheim is also relatively new to the business and he delivers and a solid action script with some minor and very forgivable flaws.  This kind of espionage action recycles a lot from its predecessors or perhaps I should say stands on the shoulders of Bond, Bourne and Hunt (M:I) but that’s to be expected. The mix in Safe House is right. Save for following a well-worn path and a very ‘clean’ ending (which I personally don’t like) this is a decent effort for a relatively new writer.

Safe House will not be able to escape comparisons to the Bourne series in style or story. However, don’t be so quick to dismiss the serious and affective portrayal of violence. This is Ryan Reynolds best performance that I’ve seen since Van Wilder and wonderful, iconic, legendary Denzel Washington getting the screen time and playing the badass characters that we love to see him play.