Saturday, February 11, 2012

"Safe House" (2012)

Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds and Vera Farmiga
Written by David Guggenheim
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Rated R: Language, violence
Running Time: 117 minutes

There's a long-standing tradition that films released in January, February and March are typically the ones that just aren't good enough to be released any other time.  It's similar to how August is a dumping ground for summer flicks the studios think can't hold up to the AAA titles of May and June.  "Safe House" isn't terrible, but it certainly deserves its February release date.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA operative in charge of watching over a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.  After 12 months of doing nothing but answering phones, Weston is eager for a chance to prove himself to his CIA watchdogs and move up the ranks to a posting in Paris, where he can live the sweet life with his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder).

One day, former agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) surfaces in Cape Town, attempting to purchase a file from an MI6 agent he used to work with.  After the MI6 agent is killed by a strike team, Frost takes refuge in the last place he should want to: the U.S. Consulate.  Soon after, he's moved to Weston's safe house and interrogated.  And soon after that, the safe house is hit by that same strike team.  Weston grabs Frost after his CIA minders are killed, and the two go on the run.

Inexperienced, but eager to prove himself, Weston decides to bring Frost in to another safe house, but Frost begins to plant the seeds that Weston can't trust his bosses at the CIA.  The two are on the run, alone, not trusting each other or anyone else, and hunted by the strike team that seems to constantly be only moments behind them wherever they turn.

"Safe House" is, simply, an unremarkable movie.  By no means bad, but it won't make too many waves, either.  It's a nice looking film, with solid performances from a more than capable cast, but the script is the weak link here.  It throws around some red herrings to make you think there are twists and turns going on, but really nothing here is very surprising at all.  The thin script is really what makes "Safe House" fail.  There's really nothing here beyond a generic action picture with some espionage overtones.

What makes it succeed is two-fold.  First and foremost, the cast - Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds show us exactly why we love them.  These two, regardless of the quality of the movie around them, command attention and are always watchable and entertaining.  Here, Washington gives us a few shades of the dangerous crooked cop he played in "Training Day," but mostly just kind of plays it coy since he doesn't quite trust Reynolds' character.  This is another weakness of the script, however, since Washington isn't given much meat to really bite into and make the character memorable beyond simply being... well... Denzel Washington.   We're given very little reason to believe that Frost is bad, even though we're told that he's supposedly a hated traitor to the United States.

Reynolds, equally, gets to play a sort of typical inexperienced-but-capable good guy, a bit more idealistic than Washington's more cynical, experienced operative.  He does fine, but like Washington, isn't given the chance to create anything more memorable.

So what we end up with is two rather generic characters, played well, who move through a generic story filled with generic chases and shootouts.  There's fun to be had, but it's nothing spectacular.  There are a few really clever, cool moments spread throughout the numerous chases, which occasionally devolve into the blurry abyss of overly shaky camera work.  Of note is a highway chase with Weston at the wheel and Frost locked in the trunk while under fire, which switches gears after Frost escapes the trunk into the front of the car.  Also good are some of the fight sequences, which are fairly brutal and show off some nifty choreography.

It's unfortunate that "Safe House" doesn't have more going on under the hood.  There's an intriguing setup and the potential for something more, but the script is just too obvious and generic to pull it off.  It falls prey to a number of cliches (there are actually two scenes in which a person's CIA file is read aloud) and obvious twists.  I have to call this one a rental.