Thursday, February 09, 2012

Safe House

I'm Watching You

Safe House, as its title suggests, offered no thrill a minute moment, and instead conjured up something that was pulling its own punches all the way. In other words, it stuck to the middle ground, with the good and the bad all laid out nicely even if the story by David Guggenheim had tried to work in some surprises, which were really borrowed cliches from a dozen action thrillers. You'd know who's on the side of the upright, and those on the other side of evil schemers no matter how hard the characters try to hide their intent, wasting its wealth of acting talent for a mediocre storyline.

Helmed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, this film seemed to serve as refuge for Espinosa to try and emulate the way Tony Scott films work with Denzel Washington in the lead, such as Man on Fire, Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Deja Vu, and this went right down to having cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Rchard Pearson follow the fast cuts and edits that's styled to try and bring out that adrenaline flow they had hoped you'll feel for in the film. It tried to be gritty, being in unfamiliar and lesser seen territory of South Africa, employing a really grainy though unnecessary look and feel, as if following a documentary of one covert agent's mission, right down to quick edits and extreme close ups to try and bring out that sense of urgency, and raw power when it comes to fisticuffs.

Alas these are nothing but gimmicky techniques that betray its lack of story. Beginning with an extremely lengthy prologue that can be done without a few scenes, Safe House stars Denzel Washington as the notorious Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA operative, one of the best in the business, having to turn rogue and having his head on the most wanted list. He gives himself up at the American consulate, but not before a big hullabaloo about meeting an MI6 agent and being engaged in an assassination attempt on his life. So Frost gets sent to a CIA safe house managed by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who has so far garnered zero field experience having spent the last 12 months waiting for some serious responsibilities and action. As the adage goes, beware what you wish for, as not before long a bunch of heavily armed hoodlums come gunning through the front door in search for Frost, killing every CIA operative in their wake.

The film follows the formula of having Eraser, Assault on Precinct 13 and 16 Blocks all rolled into one, with South Africa being the playground, as Weston needs to move Frost from their compromised safe house to another, on one hand keeping both of them out of harm's way, and the other in Weston keeping Frost on a tight leash, where the latter's experience and immense reputation puts the rookie quite at awe yet confused, being very green in this big bad world of espionage where killing someone for information is nothing but second nature. One naturally comes to expect plenty of gun battles, danger lurking at every corner, and also some camaraderie to be developed in the relationship between rookie and veteran, giving their now on the same boat having their lives at stake against an unknown enemy.

Alas the film didn't live up to its promise, having constantly gently teasing at every point only. Curiously the film began with a romance with Weston's relationship with student Ana (Nora Arnezeder) and developed along the lines of secret agent having to lie to protect her, but didn't go beyond having to show the sacrifices that are to be made. True this isn't the main emotional crux of the film, but that again didn't provide any boost to the expected chemistry between the leads. Ryan Reynolds have perfected the deer-caught-in-headlights look at being startled and blindsided for the most parts, and it's a pity that the Frost role was nothing to challenge Denzel Washington, who could and had sleepwalked through this role that straddles the fine line between good and evil. He's played characters on both sides of the law before, and this one didn't even manage to scratch the benchmark he had already set for himself. Being a fan of both actors I had expected more from their screen time together, but alas this wasn't that movie with wasted opportunities to really cement what could be a classic rookie-veteran pairing.

Ultimately, Safe House plays it all too safe. It didn't try to be too smart, or too action oriented, but touched on a little bit of everything to piece a movie together. Which is a pity that it could have been bolder with the kind of actors at its disposal, making the likes of Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard quite redundant (fans of Robert Patrick however should take note of his small role in the movie). At best this is a film that is reminiscent of other Tony-Scott-Denzel-Washington productions, but even then this reminded you of how successful that formula and pairing had been, and Daniel Espinosa sorely needed to be his own man here. Main theme song No Church in the Wild by Kanye West and Jay Z rocks though.

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