[9 February 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Safe House is a lot of talent doing a whole lot of nothing. It offers a familiar premise (rogue spy wants to prove its the good guys, not him, behind all the dirty work) and one of the most bankable stars on the planet (two time Oscar winner Denzel Washington). In support, such stellar performers as Sam Shephard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson make up for Ryan Reynolds’ lack of gravitas. But in a clear case of one element destroying all others, director Daniel Espinosa misconstrues the slow burn for suspense. Even worse, he believes that handheld camera work and long sequences of star close-ups can cover what is basically a middling idea. With its far too desaturated color scheme (the entire movie is made up of shades of beige) and the lack of legitimate investment, what should be a nail biter becomes a mere shoulder shrug.
Washington is Tobin Frost, a wanted man who the CIA believes has spent the last decade selling off US secrets to the highest bidder. When his latest deal goes pear-shaped, he ends up being captured and carted off to the title location, a South African apartment building run by low level pencil pusher Matt Weston (Reynolds). Before you can say “lack of chemistry,” some assassins show up and shoot the Bejesus out of the place. Frost and Weston escape, and then get chased by the same group of goons. Hoping for some help from the inside, they contact their connections in the government (Shepard, Farmiga, and Gleeson) and are instructed to proceed to another safe house. Along the way, Frost tries to tell Weston that he is being used by his superiors, but the novice agent just doesn’t want to believe it. When the attacks continue, it is clear that someone higher up is pulling the strings.
Since it gives us nothing new in the way of international espionage and relies solely on its lead to keep us interested, Safe House ends up having very little going for it. Sure, Washington is a wizard at these kind of roles, but he’s also a far cry from the films that defined his artistic integrity. There is very little Glory here, limited looks at such seminal performances as Malcolm X or even Training Day. Instead, the actor appears mired in a moviemaking reality where paychecks are more important than performances. While we’re not looking at a Carbon Copy level of sell-out, but there is enough here to be concerned about. We expect more from the man, want him to turn off the smirky villain persona and actually gave us a character we connect with. Instead, it’s all about his inherent star power, and while Washington has a lot, it’s not enough to win us over completely.
And then there is Reynolds who, with his already limited range, readily defines his limitations here. He doesn’t grow so much as grumble his way through the thankless role of unproven plot piston. Will Weston initially mess up his assignment? Will he lose Frost somewhere around the hour mark? Will he then use a random bit of information to track the one dilapidated shack in South Africa where his target is hiding out? Will he manage a daring rescue and even more unbelievable face off? Will the two bond toward the end to take down the real threat? The answers are a cliched given, leading to a sense of disconnect that keeps us from really getting behind the action. And since Reynolds can do little except look defeated, he doesn’t even support his own cause.
But it’s Espinosa who is really at fault here. His style can best be described as late ‘70s drive-in trash bagging. This is really nothing more than standard schlock handled like it’s Shakespeare’s lost masterwork. Instead of giving us car chases and fights we can get lost in, his direction is dry and lifeless. There’s no tension, no real sense of urgency or danger. Instead, the camera shakes around, the editing winds up in a frenzy, and we feel adrift in a bunch of meaningless violence. We know Frost is on the run and Weston must protect/apprehend him, so there is something inherently suspenseful about that. But with Washington in charge, we never doubt the ability to circumvent the baddies and gain the upper hand. Even the last act twist feels more like a contractual mandate than an organic part of the story.
Yet there is some wisdom here, and it has nothing to do with what’s on the screen. Safe House is, for all intents and purposes, a safe bet. Washington has a massive crossover appeal that’s, perhaps, even greater than Will Smith’s, and he understands what his fans expect of him. He’s not off experimenting with some tough indie fare or finding ways to break out of his creative comfort zone. Like Unstoppable and Deja Vu, he is picking the kind of roles than will keep him in audience’s minds (and himself out of debt). Gone are the days when he would collaborate with Spike Lee to say something serious about the ethnic condition in America. In its place is a carefully marketed dynamic which sees even the most disillusioned moviegoer wondering if Washington’s next film will be another classic, or just some commercial crap.
Well, something like Safe House definitely falls into the latter category. It’s dry and humorless, loaded with import it has neither the desire nor the determination to exploit. Instead, everyone tries to make mountains out of the miniscule molehill dialogue they are given while Washington works on keeping the crowds engaged. If all you care about is seeing your favorite film star in yet another example of narrative trailing far below his or her skill set, you’ll enjoy every staid, overearnest moment here. In reality, however, this is yet another case where greatness deserves better. Safe House may not be a complete and utter failure, but it clearly falls short in many significant ways. Perhaps it’s biggest sin is that it takes so much and does do little with it. Failing to entertain is one thing. Wasting Washington et. al., that’s something else all together.