Reviews

Thriller Slumming: 'Safe House'

The highly respected Denzel Washington does solid work and lifts the overall quality of this film, but it still raises questions about why he keeps taking this type of role.


Safe House

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard
Rated: R
Studio: Universal
Release date: 2012-06-12

Denzel Washington is a highly respected actor who’s given remarkable performances in films like Malcolm X, Glory, Philadelphia, and Training Day. Looking at his recent career, however, there are a significant number of roles in forgettable movies. Examples include Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and Déjà Vu, which were all directed by Tony Scott. While this collaboration has been commercially successful, it’s also played a role in limiting Washington’s career.

Joining that list of disappointments is Safe House, which gives him the chance to play the bad guy (in a certain sense). This picture isn’t directed by Tony Scott, but it retains a similar feeling of mediocrity that prevails through those films. Washington does solid work and lifts the overall quality, but it still raises questions about why he keeps taking this type of role.

This film’s central character is actually Ryan Reynolds’ Matt Weston, a low-ranking CIA “housekeeper” stationed in South Africa. He lives in Cape Town with his French girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnzeder) and longs for a chance at field work. This wish comes true when the notorious traitor, Tobin Frost (Washington), turns himself in to the authorities. Weston is in way over his head, but he ends up as Frost’s keeper when vicious hoodlums arrive to kill him.

This begins a cat-and-mouse game between the hardened former agent and the idealistic novice. An interesting battle of wills is hidden somewhere in this story, but it never reaches that level. Looking especially grizzled and mean, Denzel rightfully explains how the agency functions and destroys its foot soldiers. The problem is that we’ve seen this type of material before, so it feels more like a tired retread than an intelligent thriller.

While Weston tries to keep tabs on Frost, a trio of supervisors attempts to get a handle on the situation. Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) leads the office, while his ambitious underlings Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) work to prove their value. Although all three actors are very talented, their conversations are generic and feel way too reminiscent of the Bourne films. It’s too bad that such a competent group is here to become exposition machines. Like Washington, they bring weight to material that doesn’t really deserve it and keep the story engaging. By the time we reach the conclusion, however, it’s clear that they’re covering for a pretty empty film.

There are a few effective set pieces, particularly one at a soccer stadium where Frost deftly evades Weston. It’s a solid production, yet it never offers more than short bursts of mild entertainment.

Director Daniel Espinosa and Writer David Guggenheim are striving mightily to deliver a classic action movie, but everything’s so by the numbers. There’s a lengthy chase scene after Weston and Frost flee the safe house that includes some high-flying stunts. Once again, the downside is that it feels too familiar to other films and doesn’t stake its own claim to this territory. When Weston steers their car into oncoming traffic, it should be a thrilling moment, but instead it just reminds us of better movies. This is also one of those stories where characters shoot at will and speed their cars through crowds with little regard for other consequences.

There’s a thin plot about a key file that Frost’s acquiring to spotlight corruption in the CIA. This MacGuffin is just an excuse to bring the duo together and push the bad guys and authorities on their trail.

This Blu-ray/DVD combo release includes a significant group of extras that take us behind the scenes. The actors and crew seem to describing a different movie with a lot more complexity. Despite the up-close look at the shooting, we’re still stuck with brief statements that typically fall into the promotional category. Along with a standard 11-minute documentary, we have features covering hand-to-hand combat, the safe-house attack, the rooftop chase, and the action in general. The footage is well-done and shows how they put it together, though each segment is pretty brief.

The most interesting feature looks at shooting in Cape Town and interacting with the local populace. The extras’ total running time is about 50 minutes, and it’s a solid collection. The problem is that nothing really delves beyond the standard material.

Safe House provides competent entertainment with a solid cast and seems like the type of film that should be released in February. Given the talent involved, it’s frustrating to watch them slum in such a pedestrian thriller. Washington does his best to sell Frost as a more realistic bad guy, but even he can only do so much with the limited material. The plot twists are also easily telegraphed and don’t provide the surprise that the filmmakers intended. We aren’t involved enough with the characters to truly care about the ultimate resolution. This job threatens Weston’s relationship with his girlfriend, but it means nothing to us because they haven’t earned the stakes. It’s just going through the motions and can’t transcend the generic nature of the entire production.

5

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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