Safe House Might Leave You Feeling Queasy
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2012 10 Feb
DVD Release Date: June 5, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: February 10, 2012
Rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language)
Genre: Action, Crime, Mystery
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Actors: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick
Call it the Bourne Epidemic, or the Greengrass Effect (after the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), but shaky-camera syndrome has taken hold of today’s action movies. The spy thriller is particularly prone to this technique—a restless camera during shots that, in other movies, would be static, building to crazed chase sequences dominated by quick zooms, fast cuts and enough motion to keep viewers off balance.
Safe House, directed by Daniel Espinosa from a script by David Guggenheim, suffers from shaky-camera syndrome and certain story similarities to the Bourne movies. (Not to mention having the same cinematographer—Oliver Wood—who shot The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.) Had it just slowed down and trusted its audience more, it might have been a better film, but Safe House is too skittish in its story of rogue CIA agents to let its U.S.-government-is-the-bad-guy message sink in. So it sketches it out, throws in some energetic car- and foot-chase scenes, adds lots of gunfire and bookends it with a meaningless romantic subplot.
The basic storyline goes like this: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, Unstoppable) is a wanted man. A former CIA agent, he’s been on the run for nine years, knowing that if he ever emerges from hiding he’ll be thrown to the wolves, cast as a villain against his own country. He resurfaces in South Africa, where he’s obtained crucial information that his old bosses are eager to keep from getting into the wrong hands.
Fleeing from assassins who pursue him through the streets of the city, he gives himself up and is taken to a safe house, occupied by agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, The Change-Up). Weston hasn’t seen much activity at the house and isn’t quite sure how to handle the arrival of the notorious Frost, but before he can figure it out, Frost’s pursuers find the house and force their way in. Weston and Frost flee, leading to the type of spectacular car chase that’s become so prevalent in today’s action film that it no longer has the power to surprise.
The film cuts away from Weston and Frost to follow CIA agents Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga, Source Code), David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson, Albert Nobbs) and Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard, Fair Game) as they track Weston and try to figure out what Frost has to offer. Frost wastes no time in trying to mess with Weston and free himself. When that doesn’t work out, he gets to educate Weston on how someone higher up in the agency has betrayed him, and how the agency will turn against Weston, just as it did against Frost. Frost then gets to watch knowingly as events play out just as he had predicted.
Although putting the government as villain is not unfamiliar, it’s still a risky proposition to cast well-known stars in roles that have them expressing such cynical sentiments. But Safe House doesn’t dwell on the reasons why people in powerful positions might betray their country. It’s always rushing toward another confrontation, another gun battle and another example of brutal violence. The scenes featuring Gleeson, Farmiga and Shepard are the most disappointing, with a few barked orders and run-of-the-mill dialogue that fail to showcase the performers’ abilities.
Safe House has its moments, but in total it comes across as derivative and hyper-violent. With so many Bourne movies behind us, and another on the way, did we need a story that feels so thematically and visually similar to that franchise? It doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen done before, and done better. The filmmakers didn’t take many chances. They played it too safe.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “bulls-it”;“s-it”; “screwed”; “a-s”; speculation about Matt’s sexual preference.
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Some drinking.
- Sex/Nudity: Matt changes his shirt a couple of times, and his chest and back are seen; woman in her underwear seen from back; she and Matt shower and kiss, we see brief glimpses of skin; she asks if he wants to go back to bed with her.
- Violence/Crime: Fighting; necks snapped; lots of gunfire (often from point-blank range); reckless driving; bloody aftermaths of shootings; water-boarding; explosives detonate; bullet removal.
Religion/Morals: Discussion about how the truth is “messy” and how no one wants to deal with it; Tobin tells Matt he doesn’t judge his sexual preference.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.