dir: Daniel Espinosa
Who doesn’t want to watch Denzel being tortured?
Not me, for one, since he’s a National Treasure. And so dreamy.
But not all of his flicks are a safe bet, these days, ever since, oh, I don’t know, he won the Oscar for Training Day and lost all sense and reason and started believing he was the badass he was portraying onscreen, and that he could keep playing that same badass no matter how good or bad the flick he’s currently in.
In a few years, he might even be picking up the flicks Nicolas Cage considers are beneath him.
Safe House is not a great movie, it’s not even a particularly bad movie, but it’s okay. It’s okay for what it is. It doesn’t really exist or linger past the actual watching of it, and it has a thoroughly pointless ending that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I did not hate it as I was watching it. I could easily hate it now, but there’s not much percentage in that.
I actually remember enjoying whole parts of it. Denzel plays a rogue CIA agent called Tobin Frost, which is a name I don’t think any African American has had in the history of African-Americans. He’s been off the grid for nine years, and surfaces in South Africa. A young(ish) and cowardly CIA agent called Matt (Ryan Reynolds) ends up babysitting the guy, and then some stuff happens to them.
And then the flick ends. A lot of lazy, glib comments have been made that this flick comes across and looks like a ripoff of the Bourne films, except with Denzel, a man in his fifties, stepping in to Matt Damon’s petite shoes. This is a ridiculous assertion. This isn’t a cheap knock-off, it’s a direct copy, since the thing all four films (this and the 3 Bournes) share in common is the same cinematographer, being Oliver Wood.
Whenever you marvel at how an action scene is giving you both a headache and whiplash, because the camera itself seems to be being slapped around worse than the stunt guys onscreen, think of Oliver Wood. Whenever you wonder why it wasn’t enough just to watch two or more people thrash the crap out of each other without the spastic camerawork giving you seizures, thank Oliver Wood. If you thought the Jason Bourne flicks and all the other ones that look like they were filmed by crack addict monkeys on rollerskates are the pinnacle of the artform, get down on your goddamn knees and pray zealously to the gods above to thank them for the existence and work of Oliver Wood.
So he does his thing here, as well, to great or grating effect, dependent on the viewer. If you like this kind of stuff, it’ll float your boat during the action scenes. Thing is, though, while it does make me tense, it doesn’t always equate to an entertaining experience. And there are lots of scenes, times, places and moments where all the shaky camerawork in the world can’t obscure the paucity of the screenplay.
It really feels like they (being the filmmakers) had a setup, but didn’t know what to do with it. So much of the flick, in fact all of it transpires in South Africa, which means they really didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to, get out of the mediocre rut the flick works itself into.
Frost is not the main character, which is the flick’s first fundamental mistake. Matt is the main character, as a whiny, insecure and unblooded agent who desperately wants to be moved by his masters to Paris. Why Paris? Well, I guess he’s heard that the cafes are nice, and the food is to die for.
Also, he has an insipidly blonde girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) who is French, and, presumably, part of the work conditions enjoyed by employees of the CIA is that you get to move and work in whatever country your girlfriend comes from.
And fuck you if your partner is from Dubbo, Yass or Sale, because that’s where you’re going.
He, being Ryan Reynolds, spends a lot of the movie whining about Paris, whining to his French girlfriend, and crying a lot. A hell of a lot. For a guy who’s trying to prove himself by controlling and safeguarding his charge, inside a Safe House from which the flick gets his name, he should have spent more time apologising for taking the lead role in the heroically appalling Green Lantern, which was just terrible, utterly terrible.
Honestly, the only persistent evidence that Ryan Reynolds can offer that he is, in fact, an actor of some skill is that he somehow convinced Scarlett Johansson to marry him, if only temporarily. That must have required feats of theatricality previously unheard of. And before someone points out that he is a handsome man with a rocking body and abs of steel, let me just point out that surely that’s not enough to seal the deal insofar as marriage would be concerned(?)
I mean, Scarlett could surely have kept getting the milk for free without buying the cow, if only temporarily. No, I contend that he possesses some impressive acting skills. The problem is that I haven’t seen those skills to pay the bills deployed in a film yet.
And certainly not in Safe House.
Denzel is Denzel, and does what he always does, even if it’s a tad lazy, but his laziest performance is a world away from most of the other ‘acting’ on display here. There’s just not much more they could have done, I guess, given the strange choice of locale.
We don’t really get any sense of the place, of Capetown or Jo-berg, where the film transpires for most of its length, so the flick could just have easily transpired in the Florida Everglades, Reykjavik or Tianjin for all the difference it makes. The townships of Soweto (or Langan, if they were really there) are used just because someone thought ‘Let’s have an action set piece where we destroy half a slum. Why? Why not?’ And so it goes.
Not that it matters.
People are trying to kill Frost, and, by default, Matt, and Matt’s trying to prove to his CIA masters, amongst whom are some Traitors with a capital T, that he hasn’t switched sides, even though there’s no real ‘side’ that Frost is really on, unless it’s Julian Assange / Bradley Manning / Wikileaks’s side. The flick is devoid of political or ideological content or intent, so Frost is a curiously unmotivated creature, though the killers pursuing him seem sufficiently motivated. He does seem jack of the organisation’s mission statement, though, and we all know what happens when an employees vision and that of his employers clash: lots and lots of people die.
And there’s a waterboarding scene! Huzzahs all round. I can’t argue against anyone depicting such a thing on film, because, really, only dullards and sociopaths come away from looking at that arguing that it’s not a form o’torture. It’s just that, that’s so last year. We’re all over it. Unless they’re going to show someone subbing for Dick Cheney being waterboarded, or Dick Cheney himself being waterboarded, it’s not really going to capture too much attention.
The film delights with positioning Tobin Frost as a superheroic master spy, but depends on him not being one when it’s convenient or necessary for the plot. That’s okay, it’s that it seems to happen for no other reason than ‘uh, how are we going to end this thing?’ Matt’s time to shine (and cry) is when a fellow agent tries to take him out, quite unnecessarily, it would seem, but that’s Ryan Reynold’s chance to bounce around a room clutching a guy and having the camera catch every bone-shaking slam or brutal impact.
At least, that's what I think happened, because I'm not sure. When that shakycam stuff starts up, yes, I do get keyed up and tense, as one would hope the audience would get, but I can barely discern what the fuck is going on until the end of it, where one person's dead, and the other's somewhat more alive.
Then that person gets up, and I know how it went. Because otherwise, it's something of a mystery. Again, thank you, world and universe, for creating Oliver Wood, who camerawork brings us such delight in the cinema each and every goddamn time.
If this flick has a message, and I don't think it did, its message would be 'Don't work for the CIA, because they're not very nice employers, and the conditions suck'.
Thanks, but I pretty much already knew that.
5 times unlike Training Day, Denzel is the subdued one here, and the co-star gets the chance to overact like a crying lunatic out of 10
"I only kill professionals" - hooray for amateurishness! - Safe House