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Safe House (2012)

February 12, 2012


written by: David Guggenheim

produced by: Scott Stuber

directed by: Daniel Espinosa

rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language) 

runtime: 115 min.

U.S. release date: February 10, 2012


I recall a made-for-TV thriller called “Safe House” , released back in 1998 that was quite good. It starred an ex-covert operative played by Patrick Stewart, who is now being pursued for information he knows that could incriminate the President. The kicker – at the same time, he’s also facing his own mortality with early signs of Alzheimer’s setting in. The titular “safe house” was the character’s own home, which he had outfitted to barricade against the outside world with various defenses and security measures. Since almost no one saw it, it would be just the right material for a feature-length big-budget treatment or even a taut indie sleeper – too bad the new Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds movie, “Safe House” has no relation to that “Safe House”.

It would’ve been cool to see Washington play an ex-CIA operative dealing with dementia. He doesn’t necessarily look like a senior, but he would’ve pulled it off. Throw in a green-yet-capable agent played by Reynolds assigned to track the paranoid veteran down and there could’ve been some potential sparks flying – not the romantic kind, mind you, but the suspense/thriller type.

What we get instead is a solidly-made movie that riffs off previous Washington action thrillers, like “Man on Fire”, made by Tony Scott (the stylized and slick director everyone thinks made this movie) as well as other coolly smug characters the Oscar-winning actor has played in the past- but never really claiming an iota of originality.

Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is a rogue ex-CIA agent and master interrogator who surfaces in Cape Town, South Africa, after lying low for nine years. He has unknown pursuers on his tail, looking like stereotypical Middle East terrorists, wanting him captured or dead – it’s unclear. Probably dead, considering all the ammo wasted. In the first fifteen minutes of “Safe House”, Swedish director Daniel Espinosa configures quite a raucous cat and mouse game, consisting of some clever escapes and plenty of vehicular damage. It ends with Frost evading them by turning himself over to the U.S. embassy, knowing it’ll by him time and wave a mess of red flags for the CIA.

He’s taken to a nearby safe house manned by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a young agent currently going stir-crazy on an assignment that sees zero action. That all changes once he gets a call from the suits at Langley, particularly his superior, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), who tells him about the guest he’s about to host. Frost is brought in like a prized catch by an armed interrogation unit (led by Robert Patrick), who are quick to water-board their guest when he fails to provide important intel that could incriminate the CIA and other global agencies. That’s interrupted when the nameless gun-toting goons easily storm the not-so-safe house, taking out the entire unit, leaving the inexperienced Weston to escort his guest to safety.



With Frost in tow, Weston quickly maneuvers through the busy streets, evading attacks and doing his best not to let Frost get in his head. Back in Virginia, Barlow and another official, Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), who is doubtful of Weston’s capabilities and motives, scramble to aid Weston with their director, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) pressuring them to “take care of it”. As they wax expositional plot points and spew “important” jargon, Weston struggles to maintain a hold on the situation, dealing with a crafty captive who begins to make him second guess the higher-ups, as he seeks out a new safe house in the countryside.

There are plenty of people out there who are attracted to a movie like “Safe House” which delivers all the adrenalized chases and explosions they’ll see in the ads. I know men who will be thoroughly satisfied by all the action here, and women who will enjoy the eye candy. Beyond that, there’s not much to the movie, and considering the cast – that’s a shame.

Most of the blame falls on screenwriter David Guggenheim (any relation to Davis or Marc is uncertain), who fails to provide any dimension to Washington’s role and gets lazy with cookie cutter portrayals of headquarter officials. We never find out why Frost has surfaced – even though he’s asked, which finds him without any real motivation and us lacking any kind of investment in the character. Where are his stakes? Is he just tired of it all and wants to walk around without always looking over his shoulder? Such thin characterization leaves Washington (who serves as a producer) to deliver a hybrid of “Training Day” and “American Gangster” to a character that seems to know everything and is impressed and/or shocked by nothing.



Attempts made to humanize the duo on the run seem unwise, and only serve to add unwanted speed bumps to the pace. Weston is given a girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder, who vacillates from crying to concerned) who has entirely too much screen time. Frost is given a knowledge of fine wine and a document forging friend (Ruben Blades) that he winds up jeopardizing. This is a movie that should have either spent more time in a legitimately safe house or pursuing an increasingly frenzied speed. Sadly, not enough time, logic, or consideration is offered to either of those aspects.

Of the performances, I was most surprised to find me gravitating toward an appreciation for Reynolds, an actor I expect to see play cocky and snarky roles. Here he shows an understandable panic and realistic desperation in Weston, who can’t possibly understand his situation, but nevertheless steps up to the unavoidable task at hand. Reynolds is an actor who has obvious potential to stretch his range, so it’s nice to see him play what is ostensibly the heart of the film.

As for the three supporting roles inhabited by Gleeson, Farmiga, and Shepard – none of them were given anything unique or original to do. Farmiga fared better in a similar well-intentioned part in last year’s “Source Code” and here she falls victim to a script that undervalues her acting chops and an absolutely hideous wardrobe. And Gleeson and Shepard give us work that they can do in their sleep – and it feels like they did.

One specific small part that I really enjoyed was from Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (known in the U.S. as Det. Holder in the AMC series “The Killing”, who worked with Espinosa before in the Swedish thriller “Easy Money”), who plays a character with similar responsibilities as Reynold’s Weston. Kinnaman enlivens the movie beyond its halfway mark with a character that’s difficult to initially put a finger on, providing some of the best conversational (and confrontational) interaction for Reynolds.

Despite the script’s lack of creativity and potholes, Espinosa does visibly kick off the picture with some creative beats, but essentially he fails to carry that spirit to the end. I appreciated his use of South African locales and saturated color palettes (a call back to Tony Scott’s work), but the man clearly works best when he has these characters moving fast, instead of slowing them down for predictable clichés and excruciating exposition.

“Safe House” isn’t a wholly disappointing experience, offering some bracing thrills and providing atypical work from Reynolds. But ultimately, I’m more interested in seeking out that other “Safe House” and revisiting Picard in peril.







8 Comments leave one →
  1. windi permalink
    February 12, 2012 10:01 am

    I love Denzel, I really do, but he’s fallen prey to typecasting, and while I can enjoy his acting skills, it’s come to the point where I only see Denzel, and not the character. I remember the preview and it looks good. It did look a little formulaic though, but with actors like Ryan and Denzel I would enjoy it anyway. Haha. That other movie sounds like it would be worth looking up. 🙂

  2. Rob Marshall permalink
    February 12, 2012 5:17 pm

    It’s odd that you would blame the screenwriter. I read the original spec for this movie and so much of it was either never shot at all, or left on the cutting room floor. You should know that once a writer sells a movie, he or she ultimately has very little control over how much of it is used.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 12, 2012 5:39 pm

      It’s too bad then that the end result differed so much from the original screenplay, but the bottom line is this: my opinion and perspective comes from what I saw on the screen (as you know), and the glaring flaw to me lies in the script. That’s where everything starts. When you have a rock solid script, everything falls in place. Except for Reynold’s character, there was zero originality here in the characterization. And if you have actors who are capable (like Farmiga, Gleeson, and Shepard) and yet fall flat – that’s due to the script they had to work with. As a producer, Washington had some pull to offer revisions to his character that would’ve given us something different than what we’re used to seeing from him – but, he didn’t. Whether or not screenwriter David Guggenheim had no control over over the final outcome is a moot point, since the end result is what we get.


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