Movie Review: SAFE HOUSE, Or How Good Enough Can Sometimes Be Good Enough

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There’s a certain pleasure in watching a familiar story told well, and that fact holds together the thriller Safe House.  The film doesn’t have a single moment of genuine originality or inspiration – its setup, which finds fledgling CIA operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) forced to team up with rogue agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), suggests that screenwriter David Guggenheim took equal parts of Training Day and The Bourne Identity and blended them together in a concoction of his own devising – yet it works nonetheless, thanks to dependable performances and filmmaker Daniel Espinosa’s muscular direction.

That second part is most important.  Each set piece hits a different visceral thrill – a close-quarters shootout, a frenzied car chase in full traffic, a foot chase through a crowded soccer stadium, a rooftop pursuit through a South African shantytown, and an explosive melee nestled in the otherwise peaceful countryside – meaning that the Safe House never feels like it’s hitting the same bloody beats over and over again.  Working with Bourne cinematographer Oliver Wood and acclaimed stunt coordinator Gary Powell (Casino Royale), Espinosa brings a practical, grounded physicality to the film’s many action sequences.  They make Reynolds and Washington’s exploits messy and raw, with a minimum of Hollywood sheen, and while the shakycam aesthetic sometimes resembles Paul Greengrass’ ADD-informed work on the latter Bourne pictures, I felt it mostly stayed on the right side of coherent while giving the stunts a ground-level rhythm.

The R rating helps immeasurably, too.  Safe House doesn’t drift into charnelhouse splatter, but the restricted rating maintains a level of intensity that the PG-13 can hamper; Espinosa never has to sacrifice geography or clarity for a family-friendly certification.  A third-act brawl between Reynolds and Joel Kinnaman’s twitchy assassin benefits the most.  Their characters bash and slash away at each other with frenzied abandon, and the end result wears you out in the best possible manner – the scene is almost the equal of Haywire‘s similarly staged Gina Carano/Michael Fassbender face-off.

Additionally, since Safe House is a chase picture, with Weston and Frost perpetually fleeing armed assailants who may or may not work for the CIA, Espinosa keeps the runtime under two hours.  The chase is all, and whenever the characters talk, their dialogue is functional and expositionary.  This is not a criticism – a big part of the reason I can roll with Safe House is because the thing moves so quickly it doesn’t allow time for serious critical consideration.  Only the dull bits between Weston and his French girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) hamper the movie; as appealing as Arnezeder is, she’s a walking plot device, a corporeal means of displaying Weston’s humanity.

And Reynolds, surprisingly, doesn’t need the help.  With the exception of his subtle work in Adventureland, I’ve disliked the patented smarm that Reynolds does so well (The Change Up and Green Lantern were particularly odious), but he dials that slimy facet down considerably here.  His Matt Weston is green but not stupid, and Reynolds evinces a dogged professionalism that he’s never displayed before.  It’s a largely silent, reactive performance, and Reynolds’ physical choices – how exhausted the fights/chases make him, the fear in his eyes when he has to kill someone – round out this familiar archetype.

He’s “better” than Washington, though I suspect Denzel wasn’t trying too hard to top any personal bests.  Safe House fits comfortably into Washington’s recent spate of “Relaxed Ham” characterizations (think The Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable), where the actor coasts along on his not-inconsiderable charisma.  While I miss the invention of his Malcolm X or Training Day days, I can’t say I find him any less magnetic to watch.  With a lesser actor, you might question the character of Tobin Frost more, how he mutates from Hannibal Lecter-with-a-black-belt to a fundamentally decent antihero simply to placate Hollywood formula.  In Washington’s hands, you give up and accept the lie, hook, line, and sinker.  He’s a movie star; what else can you do?

The rest of the cast hits their marks with crisp professionalism.  Robert Patrick shows up and looks badass; Fares Fares menaces as Weston and Frost’s primary adversary; Liam Cunningham and Rubén Blades make brief appearances to lend Safe House some gravitas.  The weak links, unfortunately, are the supporting cast’s heaviest hitters: Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard.  These brilliant performers get saddled with beyond-tired stereotypes – the gruff authority figure, the secret villain, and Tommy Lee Jones from The Fugitive (I won’t say who plays who) – and unlike Reynolds and Washington, they never rise above their respective characters.

Ironically enough, Safe House‘s biggest misstep comes not from these three actors but from the film’s flirtation with bucking its genre conventions.  Late in the climax, something shocking happens.  Had Safe House had the courage to follow through on this darkness, it might have transcended its B-movie origins.  However, the Hollywood machine kicks in to twist the plot back in shape, and a ballsy ending quickly reverts back to the least imaginative dénouement possible.  Had I not gotten a taste of the good life, the formula finish wouldn’t have phased me.  I guess that’s the downside to dreck as well made and entertaining as Safe House.  Sooner or later, quality asserts itself, even where it cannot thrive.

Safe House has a stylized, blown-out color scheme, which Universal’s Blu-ray replicates faithfully.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is aggressive during the action scenes and clear during the moments of calm.

Supplements-wise, Universal has tossed in eight extremely well produced BTS featurettes: Making Safe House, Hand-To-Hand Action, Building the Rooftop Chase, Inside The CIA, Behind The Action, Safe Harbor: Cape Town, and Shooting the Safe House Attack.  There’s also a Second Screen option (Journey Inside The Safe House).

The set also contains DVD and digital copies.

Safe House may be trash, but it’s entertaining, (mostly) well acted trash with great action and fleet pacing.

The Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack streets on June 5th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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