February 10, 2012

Safe House

You talkin' to me?

Grade: B
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Training Day will turn out to be the defining film in Denzel Washington’s career, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, the cop-gone-bad drama gave Washington his lone Best Actor Oscar win, but it also (forever?) altered his role choices/selection. Before then, Washington was playing the likes of Malcom X and “Hurricane” Carter and appearing in films such as Glory (for which he won a Supporting Actor Oscar), Courage Under Fire, and Philadelphia. There were Spike Lee joints (Mo’ Better Blues and He Got Game), social uplift films (Cry Freedom and A Soldier’s Story) and even Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing).

Since Training Day, Washington’s performances remain strong but his characters increasingly coalesce around a steady series of cop dramas and man-of-action thrillers, four of them directed by the Scott brothers (three by Tony, one from Ridley). Although Safe House is helmed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, it borrows not only Tony Scott’s gritty color palette but a half-dozen other genre clichés. Remarkably, it all comes together for a rather entertaining rumpus.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, a rogue ex-CIA operative who is nine years into peddling secrets for money. When a big buy goes bust in Cape Town, South Africa, Frost surprisingly takes refuge in the U.S. consulate. Needing a place to temporarily stow—and apply enhanced interrogation methods to—Frost, the C.I.A. ferry him to a local safe house manned by low-level company man Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds).

After a band of baddies raze the hideout, Weston is the only one left to deliver Frost to higher authorities, which Weston must do sans any certainty over who is really friend or foe. He keeps one eye on those giving chase and one on the crafty, ice-cold Frost, whose Lecter-like acuity proves his most lethal weapon.

Safe House is essentially Jason Bourne meets 3:10 to Yuma, down to a villain being the film’s most charismatic character (Yuma) and a group of constipating, backbiting bureaucrats (Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard) back at Langley (Bourne). Despite his treacherous past, we’re virtually preordained to like Frost, seemingly because he knows his fine wines and, well, looks like Denzel Washington.

Still, there’s a palpable, to-and-fro chemistry between Washington and Reynolds, who gives his best performance since 2010’s Buried. Despite its derivative dollops, Espinosa flashes a distinctive style, one in which fights aren’t always quick and clean and death is often slow and ugly. And who else besides a Swedish director would set one of his film’s best cat-and-mouse sequences inside a packed soccer match?

Plot holes persist, as in any film of this sort. But they are not as crippling thanks to the film’s intensity and Washington and Reynolds’ taut tête à tête. Safe House may not have the most solid foundation, but it’s a fun place to steal away for a few hours.

Neil Morris

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