Mark Reviews Movies

Safe House


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Rubén Blades, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Joel Kinnaman

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 2/10/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 9, 2012

There comes a point when equipping a gun with a silencer is just an affectation. For example, when one is involved in a high-speed chase through the streets of Cape Town, South Africa, during which the participating vehicles are violating all sorts of traffic laws (i.e., plowing into other cars, jumping across medians, etc.), it's not as if twisting a silencer to the muzzle is going to make one's action any less conspicuous.

A routine bit of espionage action, Safe House is fortunately filled with such silly little details. There's needlessly repetitive exposition (Surely, there's someone in the CIA involved. Do you think someone in the CIA is involved? Our guy has turned. I don't think our guy has turned. Well, someone in the agency is involved). There are characters doing something dumb only to repeat the exact, same action five minutes later, which, not surprisingly to anyone but the character, results in the same problem. There's the rule that people with intense tactical training can only kill another character when that character's death is necessary to the plot or because said character is just another corpse for the body count. Essential characters are shot and stabbed only to fully recover a few minutes later.

Safe House is mindless but also innocuous stuff; we concentrate on its holes of logic and the unnecessary redundancies of its storytelling because, without them, the movie is habitually commonplace. Its loopy particulars are the only things that keep it from excessive mediocrity.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent who maintains a safe house in Cape Town. He has ambitions to move up in the ranks to a field agent, so that he can have the ideal professional life to go along with his personal one, where he dates and has a fine domestic arrangement with Ana (Nora Arnezeder). His boss David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) assures him that such an option isn't currently available, so poor Matt goes about his daily grind wasting the time away in an empty office disguised as a clinic in a country where the CIA isn't supposed to have any presence.

Meanwhile in Johannesburg, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a rogue ex-CIA agent who has spent the past nine years selling secrets to the highest bidder, emerges to nab his next item for a sale: a mysterious list that tells all of the deepest, darkest secrets of every intelligence agency of every major country in the world or something like that (He injects it into his abdomen for safekeeping: The device might be small, but it's not that small). The deal goes south, and after trying to outrun a team of assassins looking to retrieve the data, he enters the local U.S. Consulate, where they immediately identify and arrest him.

The plan, put forth by CIA bigwigs Barlow, Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), and Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), is to bring Frost to Matt's safe house where he'll be interrogated to uncover the details of his past transgressions. Frost is a cool customer. The head of the interrogation team (Robert Patrick) informs him that the man behind the 9/11 attacks lasted for 20 seconds of waterboarding; after the team waterboards him, Frost calmly asks, "How long was that?" He's so good with a gun that he doesn't even need to aim when shooting; one moment features him walking across a hallway from one door to another while blindly shooting and hitting his target.

After the team that attempted to kill Frost in Johannesburg infiltrates the safe house, Matt takes his prisoner in an attempt to bring him to another location. It's a long trip, filled with action scenes that are a reminder that there's a thin line between kinetic and unintelligible.

Director Daniel Espinosa employs a shaky, quick-cutting style to those sequences. There's the aforementioned car chase with the gratuitous silencer. Another is a cat-and-mouse chase in a soccer stadium, during which Matt decides that the best way to convince a group of police officers that he isn't a threat is by drawing his gun; when the same scenario repeats itself minutes later, he does the same thing with disastrous results ("Don't kill an innocent," Frost tells him earlier, and whatever guilt Matt might feel in doing so is abandoned once he's back to chasing Frost). The most egregious sequence of incoherence comes during yet another chase through a shantytown, in which a hasty assemblage of moving images suggests action instead of lucidly showing it.

It's messy in spots, for sure, and David Guggenheim's screenplay seems to forget information that characters have already inferred, like when a wounded goon tells a shocked Matt that someone from the CIA is involved in all the shenanigans even though he's already voiced his suspicions of that very fact (For us, it's even less of a surprise, given that we've also already seen he higher-ups in the CIA have a discussion about how, surely, someone in the agency has to be involved). If this sounds like nitpicking, it just might be; it's better than the alternative, which would be to simply say that Safe House is neither especially incompetent nor special in any way.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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