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Review - "Safe House" (Solid Technical Work Spoiled By Lack Of Originality & Utter Predictability)

Reviews
by Tambay A. Obenson
February 8, 2012 5:46 PM
12 Comments
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You’ve seen it all before in one form or another, in pieces or as a whole; rogue government operative (who “tested off the charts” of course) carrying secrets that could end the careers of many of his comrades still working within (or I should say manipulating) the system (CIA, FBI, MI6, La-Di-Dah, Dum-Di-Dum); naturally he’s a wanted man – ideally, they’d prefer his rotting carcass hand delivered to them, but they’ll take him however they can get him.

But thanks to the interference and determination of a young upstart agent with much to prove (he wants a promotion from his boring *desk job* to active duty), plans are continually shifting, bodies pile up, there’s the oh-so predictable double-cross/twist/whatever you want to call it when it’s revealed which one of the agency *insiders* is actually responsible for facilitating much of the mayhem (gun fights, fist fights, car chases, explosions, etc, etc, etc) that’s prevalent throughout the film.

You’ll find a collection of scenes from a number of what I’d call spy thrillers released over the last 50 years, starting with the Bourne series (and working your way backwards). There’s even a *war room* with dozens of screens, each workstation manned by some geek minion with thick-framed specs, tapping away at keys as the higher-ups pace around the room, barking out orders, or arguing amongst themselves as to what their next course of action should be, with all their efforts focused on locating the whereabouts of their rogue agent (who used to be pals with some of them) and/or the kid who’s taken it upon himself to “bring him in,” by any means necessary.

I couldn’t help but think of *war room* scenes between Joan Allen and David Strathairn in the last 2 Bourne movies, replaced by Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson in Safe House, with Sam Shepherd as the gruff almighty.

Whether the kid has *turned* becomes a concern, after he willingly disobeys orders from his superiors about midway through the film to essentially back off and let them “take it from here.” And of course he doesn’t! He has principles, morals; he wants to do what’s right. He’s a good guy who loves his girlfriend very much, even though he lies to her about what he does for a living, and eventually has to “let her go” as instructed by his older, wiser (black) *teacher* because “people like us can’t have normal lives and relationships,” and he was also “just like him” when he was his age and first started out at a desk job as an agent, all bright-eyed and ambitious, though also naïve to how shit really works.

And by the end of the film, the lesson is over, the student has of course learned, as demonstrated by one final fatal act that forces him to choose and act quickly; he gets an on-the-job education that 20 years in CIA school wouldn’t afford him.

So yes, it’s utterly predictable stuff, in case you haven’t already figured that out by now :)

And that’s actually really unfortunate because the rest of the film is solid! A stellar cast of actors - veterans, upstarts and everything between, whose names collectively on any other film (as they are on Safe House) would make me sit up and pay attention; director Daniel Espinosa brings his Snabba Cash stylo (the 2010 Swedish thriller he directed that got Hollywood’s attention and the Safe House gig); think Paul Greengrass and his quasi-documentary-style of directing – the hand-held though steady camera, gritty images, stark portraiture, realistic performances from good actors, and more; the action is hard and fast and there’s an immediacy to it all that keeps you entertained for the most part. But it’s all spoiled by the lack of any anxiety that comes with anticipating what may or may not happen next, because you already know. You’re really hoping that formula doesn’t trump surprise, and that what you think is about to happen doesn’t, shaking up any comfort that you feel in your projections of the film’s direction.

Alas, no. Almost everything occurs exactly as you’d expect it to.

Boo-hoo. All that wonderful, confident technical work feels wasted. Film screening experience ruined.

But some of you will be entertained enough by it that you’d be willing to overlook its weaknesses; or maybe you just wouldn’t notice them; or you wouldn’t care. Munch on your popcorn, gasp and guffaw at all the visual theatrics and smart-ass one-liners, and exit the theater feeling like you got your money’s worth – a 2-hour thrill ride of a film released during what should be the doldrums of the winter months. And by the time you’re back in your car, or on the subway train or bus, heading back home, you would have forgotten all about it.

Job done, says the studio that produced and released it. We got your money bitches!

I could go further, but I don’t think it’s worth it.

But for those expecting it to be the “Denzel Washington show,” I’ll advise you to go in with lowered expectations because he’s really a supporting character in this. This is Ryan Reynolds’ movie. Denzel’s the bigger name certainly and probably received a fatter paycheck; but Reynolds is the star of Safe House.

He gets the girl, kills the bad guy, and goes through a transformation. Call it a coming-of-age action movie, with Reynolds as protagonist about to go through a conversion, and Denzel being the key fulcrum of his psychological development and eventual change.

This is all established quite early on in the film when the pair have their first tussle – a battle in a moving vehicle that suggests Reynolds is himself a force to be reckoned with; despite Denzel’s character’s seniority in terms of years on the job and overall training and skill, the young nobody who spends much of his working life stationary, playing ping pong with walls, proves to be almost every bit the veteran’s equal.

Right!

I’m baffled at the fact that such an unoriginal script was a Black List project at one time (supposedly the list of the hottest unproduced scripts in any given year). When? In 1992?

Review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com says 6 out of 10 critics (thus far) are negative on it; no surprise.

But it should open at number 1 this weekend, although Journey 2 (a family friendly DwayneThe RockJohnson fantasy flick) could give it a run.

I wonder if anyone in Journey 2 "tested off the charts" as well :)

Bah-humbug!

Trailer below:

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12 Comments

  • anon | February 17, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    Why is denzel doing these run of the mill token black man with no family roles time and time again? they always do this have a black man with no background, history, wife, kids etc.. but they temper it with him being a cia agent or a cop or some kind or law enforcer (homeland) the same old drill can't black people be historians, biologists, ballet dancers, engineers etc.. something other than the usual. Plus im sick of these generic action films its intresting that both george and brad- his contemporaries were in indie type films playing multi layed characters with familes but denzel is still playing the lone token black man even at this stage of his career? He needs to get on the phone to steve mqueen it seems only a european director could get him a juicy complex and intresting role in a non- stereotypical film.

  • Mariavah | February 17, 2012 2:10 AMReply

    I loved it. Can't figure out why the critics LOVED MI3, but hated this. That movie was not only predictable, but just plain silly. This one was a bit predictable (Bourne knock-off, I agree), but the performances were solid and Denzel took what could have been a 2D role and watery line and moment and turned them to sweet wine. People need to give Reynolds a break. He's pretty, sure, but he can act. The scene with the "insert-European-waif-like-actress-here" by the train station was only watchable because of the intensity he projects.

  • JMarie | February 16, 2012 9:52 PMReply

    Love seeing both of these guys together. Story very true in the secrets of corruption worldwide.

    The elder took the hit. What will the youngsters do with this revelation.

    Bravo!!

  • Monique | February 14, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    I sort of zipped over most of what you wrote; I want to see the film myself without too much taint, and...well...I have tunnel vision when it comes to Ryan Reynolds. On the other hand, I'm not liking this revelation of a let-down ending and Denzel skirting the "Magical Negro" that takes the punch out of things. Ah damn...I've been tainted!

  • DAX | February 14, 2012 5:48 AMReply

    I was thoroughly disappointed! I expected so much with Espinoza directing and Denzel but like you said this was Reynolds film not Denzel's. I am not a huge fan of Reynolds more serious work but I do think his comedic acting is on point, this was his best to say the least of his dramatic work IMO. Wasted Reuben Blades talent and the script to me was just ugh. Maybe I shouldn't be so negative since I have yet to create my own film, but too many talented people to produce that drek, not happy at all!

  • Lance | February 11, 2012 11:39 PMReply

    Digital shooting at its worst. garish colors, high grain or noise. to sharpe in some closeups. Can this be the result of oversharpning in some form of photoshop? cant really say. There was one scene in which Ryan Reynolds is talking with his girl friend, he face looked like it was almost X-rayed with details I thought he veins would be poping out any moment. She looks awful in digital.don't know why it was even shot in digital with those big stars in it. the budget must have been huge. Oh, one shot of Langley VA looked stock from film which was the best in the series of shots.

    Good performances and good story for that niche. Anyone seeing this one will I think agree; it hard on the eyes.

  • Geek Soul Brother | February 11, 2012 1:15 AMReply

    You make a lot of good points, but this movie is only supposed to be a joy ride. I'm glad they got somebody to play along side Denzel, though he almost dipped into the magic negro pond. And Reynolds acting wasn't great, but it's the best I've seen him do yet. And like you, I did like the camera work, which took advantage of the tension in the actors when it was there. I'm a sucker for good hand-to-hand fight scenes too, and these weren't bad. Over all, this was a predictable, but fun movie (most spy movies are, aren't they?), which is all an intelligent movie goer should look for. Ha... Intelligent movie-goers probably will avoid this anyway. Good review.

  • Donella | February 9, 2012 3:22 PMReply

    I'm likely going to watch Journey 2 with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Depending on reviews, I may watch Safe House.

  • Laura | February 8, 2012 9:13 PMReply

    Ryan Reynold *pfft*. When are they going to restock that boy and put him back on the Walmart shelf.

  • OpinonatedFilmFan | February 8, 2012 9:04 PMReply

    Wow! Thanks for the post Tambay!

    You really opened up my eyes. I am still looking forward to seeing Flight w/ Garcelle Beauvais.

  • Sergio | February 8, 2012 8:44 PMReply

    All true what you said. But you also forgot the mention the lousy, disappointing ending as well. The audience I saw it last night hated it. You could hear the air being let out of the balloon. And ironically the next to last scene in the film teases us with a different twist ending that they don't even take advantage of

  • Jug | February 8, 2012 5:50 PMReply

    Please see my note about Denzel & Mark Walhberg...LOL

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