Friday, February 10, 2012

In Theaters: SAFE HOUSE (2012)

(US/Japan/South Africa - 2012)

Directed by Daniel Espinosa.  Written by David Guggenheim.  Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Joel Kinnaman, Nora Arnezeder, Fares Fares.  (R, 115 mins)

The ominously-named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) finds himself pursued by men with guns in Cape Town, South Africa, and when they close in on him from all sides, his only way out is to walk into Cape Town's US embassy.  Turns out he's a rogue CIA superagent who's been off the grid for ten years and wanted for espionage on four continents.  The honchos at Langley (among them Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and the always-authoritarian Sam Shepard) order him to be transported to a secret CIA safe house, where ambitious, low-level operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) spends his days listening to his iPod and throwing a tennis ball at the wall while waiting to be stationed somewhere other than Cape Town.  The extraction team--led by Kiefer (Robert Patrick)--arrives to interrogate the uncooperative Frost (who's such a badass that he can withstand waterboarding), when the same men who were pursuing him show up and kill everyone except Weston, who gets Frost out through a secret passageway.  No one knows about the safe house except the CIA, and Weston begins to doubt that Frost is the traitor his bosses say he is, and the two have to set aside their differences and work together.

If they don't kill each other first!

Watching SAFE HOUSE, one can be forgiven for assuming it's directed by Tony Scott, who's collaborated with Washington a number of times in the past, on films ranging from straightforwardly entertaining (UNSTOPPABLE, DEJA VU) to garish and barely-watchable (MAN ON FIRE, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123).  Swedish director Daniel Espinosa definitely shows off his inner T-Scott here, utilizing a grainy, oversaturated look (lots of closeups, and you can see every pore on the actors' faces) and, especially in the second half, a lot of dizzying, hyper-edited shaky-cam.  The second half of the film goes in a mostly predictable direction, but Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim do much better with the first half, which relies less on headache-inducing directorial wankery and more on character and suspense.  The entire sequence inside the safe house when Frost first arrives is knots-in-your-stomach intense, and the car chase when Weston and Frost first escape is one of the best in quite some time.  But once it's established that Frost isn't the bad guy after all, and that someone at the CIA wants him silenced, it becomes pretty standard fare.

Nevertheless, Washington, with his usual gravitas and expert command of the screen, is as awesome as you expect him to be.  It's a testament to his abilities that, with all the familiar things in his bag of tricks (cue the sarcastic slow clap and the mildly condescending "alright, alright...AH-HA-HAAA!"), he hasn't pulled a Nic Cage and completely succumbed to self-parody.  He's got a good chemistry with the consistently-underrated Reynolds, who holds his own with his co-star while seeming genuinely awestruck at the same time.  Also a big plus is the effective use of Cape Town locations (the City Bowl/Table Mountain; the Cape Town Stadium; the slums of Langa) in some of the many action sequences.  SAFE HOUSE is an entertaining time at the movies, but it does suffer from some overfamiliarity in the back-end.  Not that it runs out of steam, but just that it turns into something we've seen a hundred times before.  A riveting first hour and the seemingly effortless work of the ageless Washington (is he really 57?  One character refers to Frost as "the black Dorian Gray," and the line might very well have been improvised by co-star Ruben Blades) make it an overall solid action outing.

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