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Safe House (2012)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades

Written By: David Guggenheim Directed By: Daniel Espinosa

The Short Version

Safe House is a potentially interesting poli/spy thriller, complete with a gratuitous waterboarding scene.

Talk about mismatched leads: Denzel Washington and… Ryan Reynolds.  Really?

Pacing keeps it compelling even when the guy playing the hero falls short.

What’s with the washed out/overexposed look?

Safe House has a lot of promise, but it should be so much better. 

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s not bad.  There’s potential here.

Pairs Well With...


Denzel’s Mr. Frost enjoys a tasty South African red wine, so why not?  You can even take the word ‘wolftrap’ as a metaphor for the plot, if you like.  It’s as good of an excuse as any.

“You’ve done a fine job.  We’ll take it from here.”

In Safe House, Denzel Washington warns Ryan Reynolds that hearing the above phrase combination is equivalent to receiving the kiss of death. 

I would like to offer another such phrase: “There’s potential here.”

If a football coach says it, it means you’ve made the practice squad.

If Tony Robbins says it (with his teeth all aglow), it means you shucked out enough money for his seminar that he feels compelled to blow sunshine at you for a while.

If a film critic says it, it means that the premise is cool and it’s got a good foundation, but someone screwed up somewhere between the pitch meeting handshake and the final edit.

This leads us to another phrase: “It’s not bad.”

If the people sitting at your dinner table say it after you’ve done the cooking, it means “we will eat this shoe leather because we like/love you, but please, never touch a grill again.”

If someone who’s just opened a present says it, it means “please tell me there’s a gift receipt.”

If a film critic says it, it means “it’s better than Battlefield: Earth, but there’s no way I’d encourage anyone to pay full boat for it on blu ray.  Try it on Netflix or something instead.  Once.”

With that in mind, having just finished watching Safe House, I think that there’s potential here, and that overall, it’s not bad.

Our story begins in Cape Town, South Africa.  Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a young, ambitious CIA operative who is stuck in a thankless posting as the caretaker of a safe house.  It’s his job to make sure that things are secure and that the place is ready should any CIA agents – or detainees – need a place to hole up for a while.  In the twelve months he’s been there, no one’s showed up, and it looks like his career is going nowhere fast.

Meanwhile, across town, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, Virtuosity), is America’s Most Wanted Traitor.  A former CIA agent himself, he left the Agency several years ago under suspicion of selling secrets to foreign governments, and he’s been on the lam ever since.  Now he’s picking up even more secrets from a disillusioned Brit, with the intention to sell them for a tidy sum of cash.  Unfortunately for Frost, it seems that there are lots of machine gun toting maniacs who don’t want him to live long enough to complete the transaction.  Finding himself trapped by gunmen on all sides but one, he takes Door Number Four and seeks asylum at the conveniently located US Consulate.

Once the Americans realize who they have, of course, they go into a panic and immediately arrange for him to be hauled off to the local safe house for questioning.  (After all, you can’t do that on US soil – which the Consulate technically is – without first dealing with technical details like rights, and that just gets in the way of waterboarding.)  Looks like Matt’s finally in for some excitement after all!

Quick!  Who thinks the gunmen who were after Frost in the first place are going to give up that easily?  That’s what I thought…

So, yeah; there’s potential here.

After all, America’s Most Wanted Traitor is being played by Denzel Washington, and hey, Denzel is Denzel.  He could play this part in his sleep, and given the low level of intensity here, some might suggest that he does.  I won’t go that far, though I will say that he could have put more muscle behind the role if he’d wanted to.  Of course, there’s also a very compelling reason not to.

I seriously have to wonder what people were thinking when they decided to cast Ryan Reynolds opposite of Denzel Washington.  This is pitting a blueberry muffin against Jabba the Hutt and expecting the muffin to hold its own.  Reynolds simply has no chance.  I’ve seen him called “costume filler” before, but really, that’s not fair to the hoodie he’s wearing, which makes a more lasting impression.  I’m sure he’s a nice man in real life, but at the end of the day, being asked to accept Ryan Reynolds as a CIA savant feels like just as big of a stretch as accepting Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World is not Enough.  Even a full keg isn’t enough to fuel that kind of suspension of disbelief.  Reynolds spends the entire movie looking like a puppy trying not to pee on the carpet, and at no time does the man himself ever seem convinced that he belongs in this role.  This is not the work of a compelling heroic lead, folks.  Wasn’t anyone else available that week?

And yet, Safe House is not bad.

Someone may have made a major faux pas making Ryan Reynolds the heroic lead, but the supporting cast of this flick is great.  Ruben Blades (Predator 2) is only on the screen for five or ten minutes at the most, but he lights it up the entire time, even though he spends most of that time sedately sipping wine while carrying on a conversation with Denzel Washington that Ryan Reynolds only wishes he could pull off with the same degree of ease.  He may have thickened up a bit since he exploded onto the scene as the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but Robert Patrick lends some real authority to the character of Keifer the interrogator, and like Blades, he makes the most of his brief screen time.  And speaking of authority, how about Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff) as the no-nonsense CIA chief back in Wahsington?  If he can’t stare down an entire room of government middle managers with their own agendas, who can?  Similar praise can be handed down right on down the line, and while that serves to make it that much more obvious that our hero isn’t up to the task, it does make the pill easier to swallow.

So, yeah; there’s potential here.

Safe House also reaps the benefits of superb pacing.  Once the pedal is pressed down, this flick never lets up on the gas, though it also doesn’t ever quite reach overload levels, allowing viewers to keep a handle on the action.  Any shortcomings with the story as easily missed (or dismissed) by virtue of the fact that it all just keeps moving, even when the characters are dead tired and collapsing against the nearest wall.  This also makes one less likely to reflect on the mismatch between Washington and Reynolds as it’s happening, because again, they’re back on their feet and moving before it has a chance to turn into an entertainment roadblock.

Unfortunately, even though things are in motion well enough on their own, the director of photography seems to think the best way to really sell the action is with a handheld camera that spends a lot of time wobbling.  That wobble is only magnified by a frantic editing style that has never met a jump cut it didn’t like, with an end result that can sometimes feel like a barrage of music video paintballs to the eyes.  Even worse – and indeed perhaps even more distracting than the Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds mismatch – is the bizarre choice to present the entire picture through a faux-overexposed, way-too-bright filter that starts to cause headaches after a while even when things aren’t moving.  Sometimes playing with the color palette works – Machete and Underworld, for example – but here, there's just no reason for it, it doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the film, and it just plain doesn’t make sense.

And yet, Safe House is not bad.

Whatever flaws it may have, if poli/spy flicks are your thing, you could do far worse than this.  The script takes the formula and follows it well, with only one questionable moment the entire time thrown in for the sake of “headline edge.”  I refer, of course, to the gratuitous – and I do mean gratuitous – waterboarding scene.  I will not get into the ethics of torture here, but come on, folks, it is so obvious that this was tossed in just to make someone gasp.  They call for the towels and water even before they get their man situated in the room, and immediately go for the nastiness without even bothering to do anything else.  Was that really necessary, people?  Did that add anything at all worthwhile to the story?

Okay, so the decision to include that scene is bad.  But overall, Safe House really isn’t.  I didn’t leave the theatre feeling like I’d been ripped off, and as noted, if you dig the genre, this movie does what you expect it to do.  My interest was held for two hours, and there are some genuinely cool moments to be experienced.  But I’m not going to rush to add it to my permanent video library when it comes out for the small screen, either.

Bottom line, Safe House has the potential to be really good, but thanks to a horrible mismatch between the two leads and some questionable presentation techniques, we all have to settle for it being “not bad.”  If you like poli/spy or if you’re a Denzel Washington fan, by all means, add this to your rental queue when the time comes, but don’t pay full retail for a disc.  Besides, I’m guessing that it won’t take very long at all for Safe House to reach the discount shelf.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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