Two characters who don’t get along are forced into an uneasy alliance by a common enemy. It’s a familiar thriller plot, and in many ways, the star-laden Safe House is as generic a thriller as they come.
In this instance, it’s Ryan Reynolds’ low-ranking CIA operative and Denzel Washington’s rogue veteran agent who are thrown together after a violent shoot-out. Denzel plays Tobin Frost, whose theft of sensitive government data has made him the target of an army of anonymous, heavily-armed villains, and when Frost’s brief detention at a CIA safe house run by rookie agent Matt Weston (Reynolds) is gate crashed by the bad guys on his trail, the pair barely escape with their lives.
At first determined to return Frost to the CIA for interrogation, Weston gradually begins to wonder who the villains on his trail are working for, and whether his own bosses can really be trusted.
While it’s true that Safe House’s plot is formulaic, there are two things which make the movie worth a second look: first, the acting abilities of Washington and Reynolds, and second, Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa’s eye-catching, exhilarating direction.
As is often the case in action thrillers, the race to keep the plot moving along means that Safe House’s characters are thinly drawn at best. Washington and Reynolds, are required, therefore, to bring all the depth to their roles they can, while at the same time trading punches, dodging bullets, and crashing cars. And as Training Day and American Gangster proved, Washington’s excellent at playing dark characters, even though his acting career is filled overwhelmingly with more wholesome, heroic protagonists.
Washington lends some much-needed dramatic heft to Tobin Frost, while Reynolds brings some of the vulnerability and charm he displayed in Buried to his initially wet-behind-the-ears agent (Buried was proof that nobody in Hollywood can play bruised and exhausted better than Reynolds).
The pair’s contribution to Safe House can’t be underestimated – without their charisma and chemistry, we’d probably be left with another low-energy thriller like the disappointing Man On A Ledge earlier this year.
It’s director Daniel Espinosa who’s the real revelation here, though. He brings real weight and friction to Safe House’s numerous car chases and fights, which are gritty and, on occasion, downright nasty. Sure, the wobbling cameras and urgent editing is from the post-Bourne school of filmmaking, but Espinosa has a way of framing his sequences and dragging his camera around that is uniquely his.
Unlike some action movies, it’s possible to tell who’s hitting or shooting who in these scenes, and as frantic as the action gets, it’s always clear where one character is in relation to another – an apparently simple talent that even Hollywood’s most well-paid directors sometimes appear to lack.
Ably supported by some excellent sound design and sterling work from cinematographer Oliver Wood, Espinosa brings real style and verve to Safe House’s moments of violence. One slow-motion crash through a window – something we’ve all seen more times than we’d care to count – is framed and presented in a manner that borders on the breath-taking.
Safe House’s South African locations also provide some memorable texture and colour, and it’s refreshing to see an action thriller that uses its setting as a natural backdrop rather than as an exotic cultural cliché. For an example of a movie that does the opposite, look again at Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which felt the need to play communist marching music whenever the action cut to Russia, accordions when it cut to Paris, or bagpipes when it cut to Scotland. (I made the last two up, but I think you get the point I’m trying to make.)
Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Liam Cunningham are among a supporting cast of somewhat flimsy government agent archetypes, who you’ll recognise in an instant. There’s a furtive one who talks gruffly in the corner of crowded pubs, an older one who spends most of the film staring at graphics on a computer screen, and an even older one who threatens people from behind a mahogany desk while an American flag looms up in the background. Everyone owns an expensive mobile phone, and drives around in a jet-black four-wheel-drive Mercedes.
Ultimately, the familiarity of Safe House’s plot is what detains it from brilliance, or at least four-star very-goodness. Everyone, from the supporting players (including Robert Patrick, who’s barely recognisable from his T2 days, bless him) up to the simmering Denzel Washington himself, puts in lots of effort and some great work, and writer David Guggenheim pens one or two piquant lines of dialogue for them. But the lack of any genuine surprises, rug-pull moments or “Blimey, I didn’t see that one coming” turns of fortune ultimately hold Safe House back.
For director Daniel Espinosa, though, Safe House is a more than promising Hollywood debut. From the most familiar of cloth, he’s tailored a thriller that is far more stylish, good-looking and hard-hitting than it had any right to be, and on that basis alone, I’m anxious to see what he makes next.