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Review: Safe House


It's Washington. It's Reynolds. It's mediocre...

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House...

In the classic “End of the World” comedy sketch starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a slapdash cult goes up into some mountains in an effort to escape the imminent apocalyptic wind. “We shall be safe up here, safe as houses,” intones the cult leader. “And, err, what will happen to the houses?” asks a follower. “Well naturally they’ll all be swept away and consumed by fire,” the leader replies, matter-of-factly. Safe houses: they so rarely live up to their name.

It doesn’t appear that way at this film’s opening, of course. We begin with a sedentary montage of protagonist Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) going about his business in beautiful Capetown – a good half of it with his shirt off, naturally. He trundles into town on his motorbike, sips cocktails with his French belle by the beach, showers with her, and then wanders off to work. That this work is manning the largest C.I.A facility in South Africa does not dramatically heighten matters, as it quickly emerges “babysitting” would be a more appropriate job-description.

The Cape Town office is a tedious place – requiring more security checks than a flight to New York. As the sole person working there, he is at least spared office “banter” or Karen moaning about last night’s EastEnders, but he’s understandably miffed to have gone without a single “guest” (read: prisoner) for the entirety of his placement. We soon see him phoning his handler to beg for a transfer and, just in case you missed the solitary confinement motif, director Daniel Espinosa throws in a scene of Weston tossing a tennis ball at the wall a la Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

Review: Safe House (staring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington)Thankfully, things pick up significantly as we cut away to Denzel Washington. (Admittedly, such is the chasm in their respective screen presences, this would be true if we left Reynolds fighting Nazis with a light-sabre to witness Denzel flossing his teeth, but bare with me.) Denzel’s rogue-agent Tobin Frost is engaged in a deal that goes seriously south, and an entertaining shoot-out and car chase ensues. He’s forced to seek refuge at the US embassy and soon he’s strapped to a chair in Weston’s safe house, surrounded by a crack team of interrogators. There’s a wet rag being prepared, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s name mentioned, and the film seems poised to get really quite controversial and interesting.

...And then it doesn’t. You don’t need me to tell you that water-boarding is torture, despite the Bush administration’s (and several current Republican candidates’) pathetic cries to the contrary. It’s officially outlawed under Obama, so a film that implies it’s still routine and depicts its true graphic horror should be shocking. But it cops out. Frost is just too smooth and experienced to be phased by this “enhanced interrogation technique” (sic), so after several buckets are tipped down his throat he emerges laughing and effectively asking for more. When Weston timidly asks if this is legal, there are simply wry smiles from his accomplices. It’s as if Dick Cheney himself had a screen-writing credit.

We never get to see if water-boarding could break Frost, furthermore, as the affair is cut short by an armed gang attacking the safe house. From here on in we’re in the familiar action territory of Assault on Precinct 13 and, while this assault doesn’t last nearly as long, the tone continues once it’s over and we get the curious buddy-movie of Reynolds and Washington on the run together. What’s more, while the action is competently directed – with particular credit going to the use of sound in adding real weight to the visceral hand-to-hand encounters – the comparisons with Bourne are both inevitable and, ultimately, damning in terms of entertainment.

What saves Safe House from being a damp squib are the locations our heroes are running and fighting in. Taking in both Cape Town’s luscious beaches and Johannesburg’s scandalous townships, the film’s biggest asset is that it isn’t set in generic city USofA. This is true even of those bits that would feel like shameless film-tourism in another city, such as the shoot-out at Johannesburg’s World Cup stadium which proves to be one of its highlights.

If that’s welcome window dressing, the same can’t be said for the aforementioned French belle, Anna. Played by Nora Arnezeder, it’s hard to shake the feeling she’s there chiefly for the yoof in case they aren’t satisfied with sophisticated Vera Farmiga who may be – like Anna Kendrick’s character perceives her in Up in the Air – from a distant generation and, like, old. When Weston tracks Anna down only to force some money into her hand and tell her to leave the country for her own safety, we’re meant to recognise the sacrifice he’s making for his country and for her. But she’s spent so little time on screen – and they’ve spent even less together – that the audience’s emotional investment is found wanting.

Despite an ending that evokes our Wikileaks era, the film never regains its early promise of seriously examining US policy or what it means to be a spy. Oh, and if you don’t see the C.I.A turncoat coming you’re more a candidate for the C.L.I.A (see Meet the Fockers). It’s a solid film, all told, but for a verdict it’s tempting to paraphrase the script’s one enduring line: “You did your best son, but let the real film-makers take it from here.”

2 stars


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