Saturday, 25 February 2012

Movie #19 Safe House

Dolly Parton famously said "it takes a lot of money to look this cheap", a sentiment clearly echoed by director Daniel Espinosa in the crafting of this megabucks, shouldabeen-straight-to-dvd actioner. Set, creditably, in present-day Cape Town, Ryan Reynolds is custodian of a CIA 'safe house'; essentially an off-the-radar hideout where the Agency can stash folks that need stowing away, and in which dodgy deeds can be carried out away from international scrutiny. However, Reynolds's facility is seldom used, until former-agent-turned-uber-traitor (and, apparently, psychological mastermind) Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) appears, fresh for waterboarding but hotly pursued by a posse of generically ethnic wrong'uns with guns. These crims (led by Fares Fares) take down the safe house; Reynolds just about escapes with a cuffed Washington in tow, under instructions from CIA HQ (where Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson strut around with furrowed brows) to keep hold of Frost by all means possible.

Sounds like it could be good? Well, it isn't. And a for a number of reasons.

So let's take things one by one. There's no denying that Denzel Washington has a magnetic screen presence: the camera loves him. However, this is not one of his better performances, there is none of the stalking menace of his great anti-hero in Training Day. Nor do we get the best from Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shephard or Vera Farmiga - who must by now be as sick of playing 'weary exhasperation' as I am of watching her do so. Ryan Reynolds - who I like - is hardly stretched at all here by a flat character that spends too much time running/fighting/driving and not enough time talking. There are one or two gems in the support: Ruben Blades pops up - always a pleasure - and it's nice to see Joel Kinneman and Robert Patrick appear too.

Now the story: for an action flick with pretensions toward psychological thrills, Safe House is unforgivably tedious; seriously, there are dozens of screenplay manuals around these days that could have solved most of the problems in the script, but they can be boiled down to: (a) boring characters about whom we never learn enough to care; and (b) leaping from action scene to action scene with very little else happening in between.

Ah the action - surely that's exciting and the crashes, bangs and wallops make for some mindless multiplex fun? Well, no. The pernicious Bourne shakey-cam influence is here again, and whilst it is clear where all the money went - set-pieces take place amid huge protests, on motorways, in a stadium, in a township - the director throws the camera around so much that you can barely see what is going on. No doubt they were aiming for 'kinetic'; unfortunately it just spasmodic and confusing; and pehaps I'm old fashioned, but I don't see the point of spending millions of bucks on elaborate stunts only to film them in the style of a hyperactive teen with a circa-1995 Sharp ViewCam, and then edit with a cut almost every second. At least in Live Free or Die Hard you got to see the squad car crash into the chopper.

There are a couple of decent moments, I suppose. As mentioned above, Ruben Blades appears as a kind of reformed Nicaraguan counterfieter slowing the film down for at least a minute or two. A later episode of struggle and strangulation recalls a standout scene from a dud spy-thriller of old, Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. But these meagre highlights won't give you your money's worth (and tellingly, these moments probably have the lowest 'dollars-spent-per-second-on-screen' ratio). There are also some unintended laughs to be had at the expense of the CIA's IT capabilities; quite why Hollywood still thinks that high-tech is a bizarre admixture of ludicrously capable cinerama-screened supercomputers ("I'll pull up the security feed from Jo'burg") and Commodore VIC-20-level monochrome flashing text and block cursors, I'll never understand. And of course we get the ever reliable giant 'UPLOAD COMPLETE'-type dialogue boxes that never appear in real life. Funny, but a minor release from the otherwise po-faced story.

So, I suppose you could do worse for your cinema thrills, but really it's frustrating that a film with such high ambition (and budget, and great stars, and great location) should turn out to be so dull. Sorry guys:



  1. Spot on, I hate this style of desaturated shaky quick cut film-making. I plan to really put the boot into this in my review. Really like your writing by the way.

  2. Why, thank you! Yes, this film really deserves the boot being put in; a cast-iron moneyspinner reagrdless of quality, there is no reason for the film to be this bad.

    I did like the Bourne films, but their legacy (no pun intended) of action directors/producers striving for this kind of docudrama verite is very regrettable.

  3. It’s a serviceable thriller that should satisfy those late winter cravings from action fans who haven’t seen enough bullets and fists flying onscreen. Nothing special but Reynolds and Washington make it better than it has any right to be. Good review.

  4. I like Ryan Reynolds also, and he can pick out great films like Buried to star in, but it seems like he isn't working to the best of his abilities, as he keeps picking films like this and The Change-Up. Anyways, great review Slut :)

  5. Thanks again, chaps. @Rodders, I can't explain quite why I like Ryan Reynolds, but he does seem a cut above yer standard action star.