These are dark and troubling times, my friends. Sure, it’s been said countless times how Hollywood is bereft of ideas, turning toward sequels and reboots countless times to bring in our shekels; and yes, it’s not unheard of for a wide release film to “borrow” a scene or two from a recent blockbuster. That being said, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the…perhaps empathy is the best word to describe what I felt for director Daniel Espinosa once I realized that several of the action scenes being projected before me in Safe House were first seen early last year in the modern day classic, Fast Five.
So staging shootouts isn’t a strong suit for Espinosa, a newcomer to American features. That’s not to say that the film is a complete wash. Safe House opens in South Africa, where a young CIA operative named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) spends his days staring at the walls of an empty safe house. Weston has applied, and been passed over, several times for positions in more attractive locales, with his inexperience always being the reason given for the rejections. Suddenly his life becomes a little more exciting when Tobin Frost enters it.
Frost (Denzel Washington) is a legend within the CIA. A former operative himself, he was an all-star within the company, until he suddenly went rogue ten years ago. He began selling information to any foreign countries that would buy, and the US has been fruitlessly searching for him ever since. Frost suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of a business deal gone badly, however, and discovers that the only way he can save himself, perhaps even if it’s momentarily, is to turn himself in to the US consulate in South Africa. Once in custody and taken to the safe house, the bad guys attack, leaving Weston and Frost to team up in an effort to survive.
The biggest question in my mind walking into SH was, “How old will Washington be allowed to play the character?” I have realized over the last several months that all of the actors that we think of as stars are getting older by the second, and there isn’t exactly a farm team bursting with talent waiting to take their places. So would Washington be allowed to show his real age (knocking on 60), or would they douse him in Just for Men and hope for the best? Its one thing if he’s playing the old-timer train conductor, as in Unstoppable; we’re talking a supposed cold-blooded killer here.
I was pleasantly surprised by the approach that the filmmakers took with Washington’s age. They never shied away from highlighting the white spots of hair on his head or in his beard, showing that this was an older man, if not necessarily “old”. Frost may have been once as good with a gun as he is with his mind, but we feel that those days are behind him now. Compare that with the average role Jack Nicholson has signed on for over the last ten years; hell, even when he was dying of cancer in The Bucket List he had to be shown tagging young stewardesses during flight.
Unfortunately the director did not show as much effort in crafting well-rounded portrayals of characters from his other actors. Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal) is easily at his most miscast here as the baby-faced agent in over his head. I can totally understand why a studio would want two name actors to promote this type of film with, but for once this would have been a situation where it would have been appropriate for a production to cast a young up-and-comer and save a little cash in the process. Reynolds is too old at this point to play the wet-behind-the-ears rookie anything (we are knocking on the 15th anniversary of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place first airing), and it may have done wonders for the role to have been played by a 22 year old that actually is somewhat intimidated by Washington.
The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) have both been on a roll of stellar work, but unfortunately their streaks end here. Since they are playing basically the same character from different sides of the gender coin, excuse me if I don’t go into a ton of detail on each one here, but suffice it to say that they are here mostly because these types of films always have to incorporate the boss figure that makes the audience wonder, “Could they be the mole everyone is after?” I totally understand why both actors would take the roles as offered; as character actors on a hot streak, you gladly accept the roles that come with the highest salary while you can. It’s just sad that both have shown that they are capable of much better work and just weren’t able to act above the material given them.
Safe House is exactly the film that the studio has been selling in their advertisements. There are no massive surprises to be found here, only double-crosses among the characters as subtle as a brick to the head. If you are looking for an action-thriller that offers Washington one more chance to carry a gun, this is the one for you. Otherwise, catch a screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and see how an espionage film is done properly.