Denzel Washington plays the CIA’s most dangerous traitor, Tobin Frost, who stuns the intelligence community when he surfaces in South Africa. When the safe house to which he’s remanded is attacked by brutal mercenaries, a rookie (Ryan Reynolds) is forced to help him escape.
I honestly was wondering just what made this by-the-books thriller good enough to catch the eyes of Universal and the stars in this flick. Maybe it’s the material? Or maybe it’s the pay check? Wait, that’s definitely what it is.
Swedish director Daniel Espinosa makes his American debut with a flick that isn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be mainly because the action is actually tense and fun to watch. With the use of the South African locations here, Espinosa is able to include some very original car chases, gun shoot-outs, and hand-to-hand combat scenes that actually bring a ton of energy to the film and enhance the plot a lot more. There is a lot of action to be seen here but instead of just throwing it at us, it feels like its deserved as everything in the story starts to pick up quickly.
My only problem with most of these action scenes isn’t that they aren’t fun, it’s just that it feels like Espinosa is trying too hard to make them even more vicious than they already with the dreaded shaky-cam that everybody, myself included, loves (note the sarcasm). The hand-held camera itself moves around like crazy when the action is going on, which is common, but it’s really annoying when it starts zooming-in and out constantly when it’s just people talking. It’s also worse when the film tries to go for that gritty feel and there’s the limited color-palette on the camera itself so everything looks as if it was filmed in the hottest and sweatiest place around. I don’t know if this director thinks that being like Tony Scott is the way to be considered great in America, but he better abandon that idea cause I can’t remember the last time that I actually liked a Tony Scott thriller.
Another problem that doesn’t have to do with the action scenes is the screenplay. Obviously I don’t go into these action thrillers expecting people to start spouting out wonderful pieces of poetry but the problem isn’t that when these people talk it’s annoying, it’s more or less the fact that the film is a little too serious. There are barely any jokes here at all, except for maybe 2 or 3 but maybe I just laughed, and the film tries way too hard to get us to care about these characters by making it a lame character drama. The film wants us to feel something for Reynold’s character the whole time so they just keep on bringing his story back to his French girly-friend, played by Nora Arnezeder. The other problem is that this type of film has been done time and time again and with the first hour, there’s nothing really knew brought to the table here except for the cool action sequences themselves.
However, by the time the first hour is over, the film starts to pick up the slack and becomes more exciting and twisty as it goes on. There are a couple of twists here and there that had me scratching my head at first, but I started to understand what was actually going on and it made the story a hell of a lot more interesting. Even though, the relationship between Washington and Reynolds is another one of those “older and black wise guy teaches young white rookie the way of life” that Denzel has done many times before, the relationship between them starts to grow on you and by the end, you really feel like they both learned something from each other even though it may seem a bit far-fetched when you think about it the first time.
Speaking of these guys, both of them are pretty good here except they have been better. Ryan Reynolds is good as Weston, and has a lot of scenes where he seems like he could really kick as much ass as he has been doing for the whole film and it’s definitely really easy to get behind him. This is a very demanding role physically for Reynolds and I think he pulls it off very well but I do wish he could have given off a side-crack every once and awhile. Denzel Washington is playing the anti-hero role again that’s reminiscent of the ones he’s played in ‘American Gangster’ and his Oscar-winner ‘Training Day’ and he’s still great at playing that role. Denzel is so slick, so cool, and so charming that every scene he has, he just owns but I couldn’t help thinking that this character could have been a whole lot meaner. I mean I could never actually think of this character being the stone-cold assassin all of these other characters made him out to be considering he doesn’t kill that many people except for the ones that are trying to kill him. Thankfully though, we all at least got to see the Denzel smile that we all love so much.
The other key supporting performances here are done by Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard who give play-by-play on what’s essentially going on in the field and it’s three performances that are just there and not doing anything else other than spitting out all of this exposition and jargon that we don’t really care about. Pretty disappointing from to see these three doing such small roles like this but they’ll probably be doing something better in the future.
Even though there are plenty more films out there that are just like this, and probably a hell of a lot better, Safe House still features some very fun, gritty, and exciting action that adds a lot to its twisty story, as well as does the lead performances from Reynolds and Washington who do very well together, even if they have been better. Grade: C+
Universal Pictures presents: “SAFE HOUSE.” Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Written by David Guggenheim. Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick. Rated “R” for strong violence throughout and some language. Running Time: 117 minutes.