Can Denzel Washington do no wrong?
From the great (Crimson Tide, Training Day) to the very good (Book of Eli, Fallen) to the good (Deja Vu), the man makes any movie considerably better than it would be without him, even making the most routine, flimsy style-over-substance thrillers into engaging pieces of sheer entertainment. I can’t think of many films which he has done which would have made for disappointing cinema outings, and few actors really have that kind of credibility these days(though DiCaprio did have a longer winning streak until he hit J. Edgar).
His latest effort is the spy thriller Safe House, which sees him partner up with none other than the Green Lantern himself, Ryan Reynolds.
I have to say that Reynolds has a pretty shaky track record and, for the most part, has the polar opposite effect to Washington when it comes to foreseeing the quality of a movie; the Ultimate wisecracker might have made the disappointing Blade: Trinity a bit more fun, but he certainly did not help X-Men: Wolverine be a better movie; and he was pretty surprisingly solid in Buried but it somehow still doesn’t take the taste away from The Change-Up... or Green Lantern...
Already wary of the fact that Washington’s last teaming-up-with-a-younger-actor, Unstoppable, was a pretty shallow, lightweight vehicle (not that he didn’t work well opposite Chris “Star Trek” Pine) that marked the low-end of his run of projects with director Tony Scott, I was concerned about a Washington-Reynolds collaboration. Would the wise-cracking Reynolds ruin any good that the regularly powerhouse Washington could bring to the piece?
Safe House introduces us to ex-CIA agent Tobin Frost, a legend who has turned his considerable skills towards the dark side, and now sells stolen intelligence to the highest bidder. Wanted around the globe, Frost finds himself ambushed after his latest intelligence drop, and is taken to a CIA safe-house in Cape Town, South Africa. The housekeeper, Matt Weston, has been guarding an empty house for 12 months now, unable to tell his French girlfriend that he works for the CIA, and desperate to get a new posting in the field, so when the legendary Tobin Frost arrives, he realises that this may be his chance to prove his worth.
Unfortunately for Weston, things don’t go as expected, and a heavily-armed group of hostiles assault the safe-house, killing everyone in their path and forcing Weston to take to the streets with Frost. To make matters more complicated Frost happens to be an expert in interrogating and turning enemy agents, with a profound ability to get inside your head and make you question yourself; soon Weston finds himself doubting his motivations and, worse still, doubting his superior officers. But beneath all of his mind-games, Frost does have a point – somebody must have given up the location of the supposedly secure safe-house, so who can they really trust?
Did you see the trailer for this movie? Well I saw it, playing before a showing of Soderbergh’s latest – Haywire – the debut vehicle for the surprisingly promising young wrestler-turned-actress Gina Carano, and I found it to be exceptionally uninspiring. It didn’t look like a bad movie, but it did look generic as hell, like a pastiche of all the previous roles like this Washington had done (the most obvious comparison is Training Day, where his corrupt veteran cop takes a naive new partner under his wings and tries to persuade him over to the dark side), with lots of shouting, shooting and shaky-cam courtesy of a wannabe Tony Scott director. The one blessing was that the trailer – unlike every other damn trailer out there at the moment – gave absolutely nothing away about the plot (at least nothing more than I’ve expressed in the synopsis above), but unfortunately it also did not paint it as anything more than what we had seen done a dozen times before.
I am pleased to say, however, that Safe House quite surprised me. Faults and flaws notwithstanding, it’s a solid, arguably even very good thriller which makes the most of its lead star Denzel Washington, manages to give us a palatably restrained performance from Ryan Reynolds and a bucket-load of name-spotting supporting cast members, and even offers up a surprising amount of unpredictability in what is, on paper, a very formulaic plot. Were it not for a decreasing amount of character development, a whole lot of unnecessary shaky-cam action sequences and a very clichéd denouement, this could have been a grade-A action-thriller.
Safe House gets off to a reasonably good start, character-wise, allowing more than enough time to get to know Ryan Reynolds’s bored itching-to-get-some-action housekeeper; his healthy relationship with his girlfriend – well healthy but for the massive lie about what he does for a living. It also intercuts this story with a great introduction to Denzel Washington’s elite agent-gone-bad, who we see navigating the streets and evading armed assassins like the consummate professional that we would expect him to portray. He’s supercool in most everything, but his escape and evade tactics are even more spectacular, and get his character off to a great start. Throw in some waterboarding torture and an enemy who are clearly prepared to kill good guys just to get to him and you suddenly find yourself wanting him to win (as if that wasn’t inevitable!).
The tense relationship between “housekeeper” and “houseguest” is initially intriguing, with Washington’s master spy-turner wheedling his way into his young captor’s mind, sowing seeds of doubt and making the man question everything from his “healthy” relationship to the legitimacy of his Agency’s actions. And the fact that the two don’t immediately strike up the trademark clichéd ‘unlikely partnership’ is also refreshing – Washington spends more than half of the movie just trying to escape, with varying degrees of success, and this means the relationship between the two does not enter predictable territory until quite late into the game.
Washington is, of course, reliable as ever. If anything he’s on better form here than in the likes of Unstoppable and even American Gangster, and he utterly relishes the role, which is just on the right side of his ultimately unconscionably corrupt anti-hero in Training Day. He has that commanding presence that makes his movies instantly more watchable just from having him on-screen and, thankfully, even as he approaches 60, still looks largely the same as he’s looked for the last decade (it’s remarked about his character that he’s “a black Dorian Gray” and the same thing could easily apply to Washington himself), and still commits to the more action-orientated moments – from running to fighting – with such aplomb that you always believe in his character and his character’s abilities. Indeed perhaps more so than ever before he finds himself doing a considerable amount of physical action – from a rooftop-chase to several hand-to-hand confrontations, his character rivals Bourne in the action sequences (interestingly enough, he’s set to lead the new Robert “Bourne” Ludlum franchise starting with The Matarese Circle, so this may be just the first of many more action-dominated thrillers from him).
Opposite him Reynolds is thankfully on very restrained form, seldom being given trite throwaway lines to dish out, and so therefore coming across as considerably less arrogant and irritating – and much more earnest – than he usually does. He’s still Ryan Reynolds, and whilst this version is still nowhere near the near-career best form he exhibited in Buried, it’s still much more in-line with the serious, dramatic nature of this thriller (perhaps closer in tone to the reliable performance he provided for Smokin’ Aces).
The supporting cast includes a plethora of familiar faces, with Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, Braveheart) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Source Code) as Agency management, and Sam Shepherd (Fair Game, Stealth) as the Director. None of them get quite enough time to fully develop their characters, although Gleeson gets the more meaty of the roles, with Farmiga looking a little tired and coming across as a bit wasted in her insubstantial art, and Shepherd on stalwart form, only brought down by the fact that he looks increasingly like he’s forgotten to put in his false teeth.
Ruben Blades (Predator 2) has a charming cameo as a forger, Liam Cunningham (Harry Brown,The Guard) gets a similar amount of screentime as an MI5 operative, and the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick (Cop Land, Die Hard 2), brings a shade of humanity to his role as a contracted interrogator who is dispatched, along with his team, to first handle the dangerous ex-CIA rogue, Frost.
So what we have here is a great lead actor on fine form, a pretty good co-star and a whole cadre of enjoyable supporting actors, who are all given familiar but still engaging roles to play; an ostensibly formulaic plot which actually has enough twists and turns to prove quite original and exciting for the most part; and some decent action set-pieces coming at you fairly frequently across the two-hour duration. So why not give it a higher score?
Well the film was directed by Daniel Espinosa, a Swedish director who makes his US directorial debut here. I haven’t come across any of his previous work, and, on the strength of this feature alone he appears to be a pretty competent director – with more than a hint of Tony Scott over-stylisation flair about him – but, unfortunately, he’s recruited Oliver Wood to be his DOP. For those who may not recognise the name, Wood is most noteworthy for being the Cinematographer on the Bourne movies. His Bourne-trademarked shaky-cam style is stamped all over this film moreso than anything I could recognise as being distinctive of the Director himself, and not to the betterment of the movie itself.
When I first saw the Bourne movies, I found the shaky-cam style quite hard to get used to. That said, I did come around to it. I still can’t help but feel that it’s a good way of both making an otherwise easily R-rated fight into something more PG-13-friendly and making Matt Damon look like a kick-ass superspy, but the end results was still an excellent trilogy, so who can really complain? The problem is with the offshoot of shaky-cam action movies, a gimmick almost as popular as the found-footage style which filmmakers appear to adopt to avoid budgetary restrictions (though they’d never admit it). In many instances shaky-cam is just woefully distracting, and leaves the viewer wondering what on earth is going on. It’s slightly more easily digested on home formats, but up on the Big Screen it is at its worst. And Safe House has it by the bucket-load.
For the opening escape and evade sequence, the frenetic car chase (again, ripped straight out of Bourne, but no less entertaining for it), the rooftop chase and the numerous close-combat fight sequences we get the camera moving faster than the human eye can keep up with, fast-edits making everything into a bit of a blur. Thankfully, the majority of these moments come across ok as a result – if anything it adds to the pacing and resultant tension – but for almost every single fight scene in the movie it just makes things impossible to follow. Who is hitting who? How did he get that gun? Why’s he lying on the floor? Did he just get stabbed? Who shot who? It’s not great news when you’re watching a movie and you have to play catch-up to the action scenes, only figuring out what must have happened from the aftermath, and not following it as it happens. As noted, this movie boasts more hand-to-hand fighting (and running-and-gunning) than Denzel Washington has ever done before in his entire career, but a great deal of it is just too fast and too frenetically edited. He’s still effortlessly cool (the best moment is where he casually walks across a corridor, shooting someone mid-stride in one fluid motion without missing a beat) but it would have been far more satisfying if they’d slowed things down a tiny bit; or shot the fights wider so you could actually see who is hitting who. Reynolds also gets his fair share of confusing moments, including a particularly bad bit where he’s fighting some guy and, all of a sudden, they are both on the floor and he has a gun. As noted, I’m sure it’ll all be much more satisfying on Blu-ray, but, in the cinema, you’re left wondering what just happened?
Another “what the..?” moment comes in terms of the dialogue. Washington’s got some great lines. But I didn’t hear them all. The sound levels for his dialogue are particularly bad when he’s quietly reflecting, and, unfortunately, there are plenty of moments like that. What on earth was he babbling on about to his interrogators in the first act which made them look so damned worried? I’m sure it was really clever, undermining their actions at every stage, but I didn’t have a clue what it was (answers on a postcard) and it remains another thing to pick up on home formats. This has certainly got me even more wary of Nolan’s upcoming conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises, particularly after my prologue review highlighted some issues with the voice levels of Tom Hardy’s villain, Bane. Do these kinds of things not get checked in post-production?
Of course, in character development terms, the disappointment is that they never quite fully capitalise on the mind-games hinted at during the first act, instead teasing us with a few insightful exchanges before devolving into a more conventional chase thriller for the remainder of the duration. It’s nice that they at least keep Washington’s part so ambiguous (again, answers on a postcard as to whether you think he was good or bad) but they could have done so much more with the relationship between his character and Reynolds’s.
All in all, the plus points definitely outweigh the criticisms, and the somewhat misleadingly-titled Safe House (I guess the title “Safe” was already taken by the upcoming Statham film) remains a surprisingly good spy thriller, which is different enough to engage you from the outset, which remains entertaining for the duration, and which only ultimately disappoints in that it does not fully capitalise on such a promising start. A little less shaky-cam, a few more mindgames, and this could have been a great thriller. But it’s still a very good watch, and not just for the ever-reliable Denzel.
I'm not your only enemy tonight.
Safe House was quite a pleasant surprise. Its trailer made it out to be just another generic spy movie, with Denzel Washington playing the corrupt mentor to Ryan Reynolds’s naive newbie in the same vein as Training Day. But it’s actually a fairly solid, entertaining thriller in its own right, with a decent premise, some sparks of originality, and Reynolds on thankfully quite restrained form. Of course Washington owns this movie – perhaps his most action-orientated outing yet – and still has that commanding presence that guarantees an entertaining trip to the flicks. With a little less shaky-cam, a little more thought put into the mind-games between the two main characters, and a slightly less clichéd denouement, this could have been a great thriller. But it’s still a pretty damn good one.
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