This is the first film review I ever wrote and it’s also featured here.
Training Day and The Bourne Ultimatum had a kid. They named it Safe House. However, these over-protective parents lived on the fearless side of action-movie life; it seems that they were slightly traditionalist in teaching when it came to their cinematic progeny. Even so, Safe House runs throughchase scenes with thrill-kicking baby steps where good cop/bad cop characters and treacherous government agencies cross paths in a sordid South Africa. While Safe House is somewhat cautious, it is still a well-acted, engaging, tug-of-war film that stays true to its action genre.
I know that calling an action film “cautious” is a paradox since such movies follow plotlines fraught with danger. Step 1: Break things, crash cars, and terrify innocent people. Step 2: Kill people. Kill lots of people. Even add throwaway characters whose sole purpose is to die. Step 3: Have a hero. Have an antihero. Just have someone stopping the unstoppable bad guy. Safe House definitely does not stray from this formula for danger, as seen in the following clip: [INSERT: “Frost Attacks Weston While Driving Through Cape Town”]
The film’s disadvantage though, may come from David Guggenheim’s script because the traitor’s reveal does not surprise much and viewers probably won’t feel sympathetic toward many characters falling victim to the first, lethal step in the action-movie formula. Even in Training Day, we feel the injustice of a drug dealer’s death, and Jason Bourne loses not only his true identity, but also a love interest somewhere in his trilogy.
Regarding Safe House, there is a massacre of men from early on in the film by mysterious characters who are after the notorious, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington. The men fighting off the intruders include Frost’s cross-examiner and his team. Prior to the entrance of the intruders, the cross-examiner orders the disabling of cameras in the safe house for an undocumented, torture-filled interrogation of Frost. After these unethical actions, viewers have no reason to feel sympathy toward the cross-examiner and his comrades once the shoot-out begins. Now obviously the bad guys win this fight or the story stops there, after an easy victory about 20 minutes into the film, so screenwriters should at least make viewers feel the impact of the loss of life by having characters worth caring for. Here is an easy solution, Guggenheim; think backstory. Even that poor cop in Reservoir Dogs, had a family, and even the Joker’s concocted story of his scars presents itself as a believable, sympathy-inducing tragedy the first time it is heard inThe Dark Knight.
While no Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan masterpiece of a screenplay, Safe House still provides two main actors who give impressive performances. Ryan Reynolds, especially, makes a dedicated effort to prove himself outside of the comedic roles where he seemingly now has a comfortable, cushioned seat eternally waiting for him in that genre. When his character, subordinate CIA agent Matt Weston, ends up being the man who must keep Frost within an arm’s reach and bring him to a new safe house, Reynolds’ Weston shows a range of emotions while never abandoning his moral code. At first, Weston spends his monotonous workdays answeringphones, twiddling his thumbs, and endlessly waiting for a less sheltered job. Nothing says, “I need some ominous, Denzel Washington type of apathetic criminal as a house guest” quite like that kind of inactivity.
Frost tells Weston, “First rule is to protect your house guest. I’m your house guest,” and so the party begins. For the rest of the film, Frost tries escaping Weston’s rookie handcuffs while Weston tries keeping Frost cuffed to anything conveniently around. So the CIA’s most-wanted double-crosser and, quite simply, a really good person are unenthusiastically attached. Inevitably, they show their effects on each other.
Dynamic characters develop throughout the film; they learn, adapt, gain insight. Skilled actors must convey this character development. Reynolds does that during Weston’s “bonding” time with the icy Frost—puns intended. He goes from being a crying, nervous beginner to a confident, unstoppable justice seeker. Not bad for the guy in all those romantic comedies.
Washington “good guy” roles exists in films like Inside Man and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. His criminal, ruthless, and reprobate characters, like Detective Alonso Harris in Training Day and Frank Lucas in American Gangster, have far more complexity and disquieting intrigue. Add his Safe House character to that list. At times, Washington seems like playing Frost is too easy, but he is at his best when with his character’s foil, Reynolds’ Weston. The two effectively challenge each other at packaging their relationship of being both enemies and comrades for a neat delivery.
Safe House‘s director, Daniel Espinosa, also effectively borrows from The Bourne Ultimatum‘s use of shaky cameras. The camera—or eyes of the audience—places viewers in the middle of the action, next to the characters, or even with their point of views. If characters are crashing through windows or involved in violent brawls, as seen in Safe House, shaky cameras put viewers on edge in an engaging, suspense-building way. Unsteady cameras make viewers feel as if they are also running with the characters rather then sitting and watching the action stroll by.
So, Safe House is not a mere infant walking, running, and jumping off buildings in its parent’s deadly footsteps. It is more like a wunderkind Bourne in good Training, but still young at that. Safe House colors carefully in the lines of the genre’s formula, but at least that means there is no incomprehensible mess all over the page, or big screen.