Monday, February 20, 2012

Safety First

Denzel Washington has worn dozens of hats in his storied Hollywood career. In his numerous films he's played soldiers, detectives, reporters, gangsters, incarcerated boxers, football coaches, men on a mission, and civil rights activists. Arguably the most well-known and respected African American actor in Hollywood history, you can't walk into a theater playing one of his films and not be astounded by what he puts forth, even if the rest of the movie isn't necessarily worth watching. One of Washington's biggest career turning points was when he played dirty cop Alonzo Harris in 2001's detective film Training Day, a role that won him his second Academy Award (the first was for his supporting role in Civil War drama Glory). The upside was that Washington got the attention he deserved, not a mean feat for a nonwhite man in this industry. The downside was that his work in Training Day was so effective, it became difficult for audiences to accept him as anything outside that brand of gritty character, or that type of downtrodden universe. That's what made 2007's American Gangster so popular, as Washington played a legitimately bad dude in real-life mobster Frank Lucas. Meanwhile, more uplifting, dramatic films like Antoine Fischer and The Great Debaters were moderately successful, but not the hits this prolific actor has been known for. Well, Washington is back after a slow couple of years (The Book of Eli and Unstoppable were fun excursions if nothing else), and Safe House looked to be very Training Day-like in the bad-boy portrayal of its star performer. Even if the film doesn't live up to his unnaturally high ability, it would be worth it just to see this great performer in action.

Nope, this isn't the waiting room for the Oprah Winfrey show...
Tobin Frost (Washington) is a former CIA operative who went rogue several years ago, selling State secrets to interested parties around the world, and earning the ire of his former bosses in the Central Intelligence Agency. He's remained invisible for years, until a mysterious group comes hunting for him, and the only escape he can make is to surrender himself to an US embassy in Cape Town, South Africa. Meanwhile, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a young CIA agent who is stuck babysitting a Cape Town safe house, unable to qualify for a more active posting due to a lack of field experience. His life is sitting in an empty building, where nobody ever visits and nothing ever happens. That is at least until Frost is extracted from the embassy and placed into his custody. Very quickly, the people who have been hunting Frost track him down and start killing anyone who gets into his way. Responsible for keeping Frost out of enemy hands, Weston must escape the safe house, get in touch with his agency handlers, and figure out why Frost is being hunted, and by whom.

"No, Tobin, this is a bad time to try and teach me the Vulcan neck pinch!"
There's no doubt soon after the opening credits that this is an action film, and Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa (in his American directorial debut) was definitely a good choice to take advantage of that. He obviously has an eye for the detail necessary to make an action story work, and manages to turn any location - from a high-end urban sprawl to a football (soccer, for the uninitiated) stadium to a disheveled shanty town to a rural farmhouse - into a believable set piece of epic violence and imminent death. None of these things feel regurgitated from one another, either; each scene is fundamentally different and exciting in its own unique way, with only the overarching story binding it all together. One thing I hate about modern action movies is the director's decision to focus so closely on the action that we the audience cannot tell exactly what is going on. Safe House does unfortunately suffer from this affliction, but thankfully not as often as it could have. For the most part, action sequences are clear, fun, and without any doubt as to who has the upper hand.

If you want to avoid drawing attention, you probably shouldn't have the black dude drive.
Of course, it's that storyline that is the real problem with Safe House. For all the fun excitement that it throws out there, the premise is very much Training Day meeting a modern-day 3:10 to Yuma. The entire story revolves around the straight-laced Weston getting the Frost from point A to point B, with all the obstacles both in between and at the destination. It's thanks to a well-paced screenplay that this doesn't become completely obvious until the final act, but the derivative plot points do get slightly troublesome after a while. Worse are the sudden-but-inevitable betrayals (thanks, Wash) which are visible a mile away and provide absolutely no surprise. Its here that the film's lack of character depth becomes a problem, as everyone reacts pretty much exactly as you would expect, with nothing so shocking as to be a game-changer.

All these TVs and no HBO? What has the world come to??
At least the acting talent of this ensemble cast makes up for the lack of real characters. Washington of course is amazing, but that shouldn't be unexpected to those who have seen him in just about anything else. Tobin Frost is not a good guy. For those out there who thought his betrayal was a coy misdirection shouldn't get their hopes up, as you'll be disappointed. But playing bad is no new skill for the actor, who still will manage to be the "hero" to many watching him on the big screen. Smart, efficient, and utterly without compassion or loyalty to any but himself, Tobin Frost succeeds as a character due to being incredibly detailed, a trait many of the rest lack. Ryan Reynolds is almost surprising in that he's nearly as good as Washington, something most folks won't be expecting. Like Ethan Hawke in Training Day, Reynolds' Weston is a rookie ripe for life lessons, and Frost is, well, maybe not "happy" but able to impart his wisdom as an ace agent. Weston is shown to be physically capable, however, and able to hold his own against the living legendt, in an important distinction to Hawke's character, who was more over his head than anything else and survived thanks to luck rather than skill. Between Washington and Reynolds is a constant see-saw of control between the two characters, and Reynolds, who is out of his comedic comfort zone, proves here that can handle a serious piece. The rest of the cast is less able to evoke anything akin to emotion or believability. Brendan Gleeson doesn't get a whole lot of attention in America (probably because he's a big, ugly Irishman), so when he gets roles in big movies, he goes all out but generally isn't given much to work with. I'd love to see him in last year's The Guard, in which he was epically praised, but here he's smarmy and normal. The same goes for Sam Shepard as a plain Jane CIA Deputy Director. Vera Farmiga and Nora Amezeder play the film's only two substantial female roles, and they are pretty much at opposite ends from one another. Farmiga is a senior CIA operative who can learn anything about anyone in an instant, while Amezeder plays Weston's girlfriend, a nurse who doesn't even know Weston's real occupation. Neither play a major force in the film, and are just foils for the male characters in the room. And seeing Robert Patrick so old just makes me want to go back and watch Terminator 2 again.

Sure, it's not a .44 Magnum, but do YOU feel lucky?
In the end, Safe House is a fun, if derivative, thriller that utilizes better talent in the final production than it did in the early, formative stages. Washington and Reynolds carry this film to new heights, and while it's no piece of perfection, it does come in at #4 when ranking the year's best releases. While I'd love to see Washington get back into Oscar-hunting territory with his film choices, I certainly won't complain when he takes an otherwise dull retread and turns it into something I'd eagerly recommend. Enjoy.

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