[9 February 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“What’s that?” asks Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), indicating a teeny-flashdrive-file an MI-6 agent has just sold him. “It’s going to make the world a much smaller place for you… For both of us,” comes the ominous answer.
As Tobin Frost hides the file away, Bourneishly injecting it into his thigh at the start of Safe House, you know too well that the adventure on which he’s embarking will be equal parts international espionage, high-tech weaponry, and hyper-actionation. The so-called stakes increase when you learn that Tobin Frost (whose name is repeatedly uttered with both parts, reverently and ookily, rather like “Keyser Söze”) is ex-CIA, gone “rogue,” a point underlined by glares and terse comments by high level operatives who express surprise when he gives himself up. You, on the other hand, have an idea why, because you’ve seen the raucous chase and shoot scenes preceding, as he eludes execution in Cape Town, South Africa and delivers himself into the mostly incompetent hands of the US government, more to buy time than to save himself per se.
This distinction between what the film’s designated pros know and what you know—or can guess, based on your experience with these sorts of films—quickly turns tedious in Safe House. Of course, such structure is common, urging you to empathize with the charismatic outlaw Tobin Frost and believe that he left the CIA nine years ago not because he’s bad, but because the CIA is bad (you also will not be hard pressed to guess the identity of the traitor inside).
This idea is introduced in the scenes before Tobin Frost appears, as junior CIA agent Matt (Ryan Reynolds) chafes against his serially dull assignments, that is, watching over safe houses until or if they’re needed. That Matt’s boss, David (Brendan Gleeson), rejects his request for a change out of hand only reinforces your sense that the company is machinelike and unintelligent, using up underlings and actual assets with equal measures of belligerence and ignorance.
The movie goes on to fill out this fundamental (and too familiar) premise with predictable details. Matt wants his promotion because he has a lovely French girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder). He’s a decent guy and alternately brilliant and woefully slow-on-the-uptake agent who’s inclined to play by the rules he knows, until he learns those rules are rigged. This last aligns him with Tobin Frost, who is his “guest” at his safe house, and thus, his responsibility when everything goes monumentally wrong. Matt’s concerns begin when he watches CIA operative Kiefer (Robert Patrick) waterboard the guest, repeatedly. Standing on the other side of the two-way mirror, Matt winces at the scene and at the seeming looks Tobin Frost casts his way.
Matt and Tobin Frost both know Kiefer’s being instructed from Langley, where David competes with Catherine (Vera Farmiga) over whose team will beat up on Tobin Frost, their juvenile spatting overseen by their CIA master (Sam Shepard, again playing the control-room guy he’s apparently doomed to play forever now). But Tobin Frost knows better than Matt just how ugly the infighting will be, as well as how deep the corruption will go. And so, as the safe house is beset by an extremely well-armed and mostly adept kill team (headed by one of those bearded super-thugs who show up in these movies, this one named Vargas and played by Fares Fares), Tobin Frost and Matt escape, leaving behind lots of bodies. Though Matt thinks he’s in charge, using handcuffs and a gun to dictate terms, you and Tobin Frost know better. When the kid demands that his unexpected mentor not try to “get in my head,” Tobin Frost smiles, “I already am in your head.”
This dynamic leads to Matt learning lessons from Tobin Frost, frequently punctuated by explosions and crashes, and colored by a sort of smudgy, yellowish digital stock, pace Tony Scott. This grants Safe House an ersatz edgy look, bolstering your own alignment with the ersatz edgy Tobin Frost. He offers bits of Mr. Miyagi-style instruction—“You can’t expect to have a real relationship in our line of work,” and more pointedly, “That’s why we exist you and me, to take advantage of other people’s desire to believe, to trust”—so that Matt can fully appreciate the power and price of lying for a living.
You won’t be so shocked as Matt to find out that lying is not much fun. Still, the movie pounds this home, with scenes where Tobin Frost shares info and regrets with an old forger friend (Rubén Blades, who makes the film’s best joke, calling Tobin Frost “the black Dorian Gray”) and Matt takes precious time out from his life-or-death spy business to speak and meet with Ana, then abruptly gets himself back on tracks directly to his targets. As he marvels at Tobin Frost’s brutality—and even adopts a bit of it—Matt reveals that he didn’t watch enough generic action-spy movies while wiling away his time in the safe house. Otherwise, he’d know what you know. And he’d get out.