Did you know that Denzel Washington has appeared in more than 50 roles as an actor? Did you know that he is 57 years old? Or that he has directed two films? Maybe you had some idea about the depth and length and range of his career, but when you see it laid out before you in the form of a list – you are struck by the fact that it is very likely that you’ve seen a great many of these films. So it’s no surprise that Roger Ebert had dubbed Washington as the Spencer Tracy of this era.
Safe House opened today starring Denzel along with Ryan Reynolds, Set mostly in Cape Town, South Africa – this is going to be a CIA agent type of action thriller. The bare bones outline is that the Ryan Reynolds character Matt Weston is ‘housekeeping’ a CIA safe house in Cape Town. One day, Tobin Frost (Washington), at one time a CIA case agent all-star and legend, now considered as an agent that went rogue before dropping off the grid nine years ago, suddenly shows up at the USA consulate in Cape Town. We know why he’s there – because some unknown assassins are doing their best to kill him – so he needs some immediate protection. But the honchos at CIA headquarters at Langley doesn’t know this. He is then immediately transferred into Weston’s care at the safe house.
Only it is no longer safe. The facility’s security has been breached. Which means that Frost and Weston will have to fight their way out, and head for the hills. With mucho bad guys after them. Eventually, Frost will have to point out the obvious to Weston:
Tobin Frost: I think you need to consider how your safe house was attacked in the first place. That house was a secure location. Whoever crashed it, they were invited. Someone told them, someone you know…
Matt Weston: You’re not gonna get in my head.
Tobin Frost: I am already in your head!
So off they go. Meanwhile back at Langley, Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson, press buttons, pull strings, and attempt to ‘manage’ things from afar. This is done by decisions made on the fly, which leads to sharp commands and the staff then snap into action.
The long and the short of it is that this film isn’t anything new. In fact, Gleeson was a CIA Chef de Mission, based in Iraq, as recently as 2010 in the film Green Zone. Farmiga had a similar role (though she was in the Army) just last April in Source Code. Here she fits into a version of Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy from Bourne 2 and 3. Sam Shepard, like Denzel, has been around for a long time, so performing in an action flick is nothing new for him. In fact, both Shepard and Washington appeared in The Pelican Brief. That film came out in 1993 – 19 years ago. This time Shepard is in play as a combination of Straitharn’s Noah Vosen and Scott Glen’s Ezra Kramer, the CIA Director in Bourne 3.
One gets the feeling that this film is very Bourne-esque, but it doesn’t want to be labeled as such. Though behind the scenes, I don’t think the producers or Director Daniel Espinosa would mind if Safe House was discussed in the same way as any of the Bourne films. Beyond that, it not only has the look and feel of a Bourne film – it also has the pedigree. Cinematographer Oliver Wood manned the cameras in all three of the Bourne movies. Film cutter Richard Pearson also edited the Bourne Supremacy. So if we say that the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree – it makes sense and is decidedly true.
But we aren’t going to get a brand new crisp apple with Safe House. At the end of the day, we are served up some hot apple pie made by some of the same bakers and with the apples from the same orchard. But despite that, that sense of familiarity, and we’ve seen this before, the film is tasty, really quite tasty in fact.
To get them on the record, and out of my head – so much has been lifted from all of the Bourne films that you won’t fail to notice. It’s like a recipe. Add in the multiple collisions car chases, season with the roof top chases, drop in a few dollops of the CIA Ops room with folks bringing in images on command. Add flavorings like the expressions ‘off the grid’ and ‘phone it in’ which are right out of Bourne. On top of all that you have the intense hand-to-hand combat. They even say they can bring in assets or a team to help.
About the only thing that didn’t come over from Bourne is the Julia Stiles character Nicky Parsons.
Now that I’ve bludgeoned you with the Bourne comparisons, I’ll get to the meat and potatoes. Despite all that I’ve said – I enjoyed this film. It was thrilling, it was exciting, it had pace as well as shaky hand-held cams, grainy images, lots of loud noises when guns are fired – in fact these are so loud that this is a new and seriously high level of sound effects for me
Though the film is set in Cape Town, and some of the upcountry townships, they don’t take advantage of it. There are two long-range shots from airborne helicopters that display the whole of Cape Town, which means they were really there. But this is a minor quibble.
As for the cast, Ruben Blades and Robert Patrick have small but quietly effective roles. At the next level we have Farmiga, Gleeson, and Shepard who are at or near the top of the CIA hierarchy. They’re separately and collectively aggressive, ruthless, cold, and efficient.
Then we have Washington’s Frost and Reynolds’ Weston. Washington’s Frost is the man of mystery. Has he gotten a bad rap from those folks at Langley? We don’t know. But an actor like Washington brings just the right mix of gravitas, heroism, toughness, and truth to the part. Just because forces are out to get him, and just because he’s been painted as a traitor – doesn’t mean we won’t like him.
Reynolds does a great job too. I could easily see him and Jeremy Renner joining forces in Bourne 5. He’s set up as a guy who house-keeps the safe house. But in reality he hasn’t much to do – he’s out of play until the safe house is put into play itself. At this point, Reynolds/Weston is going to get the ‘field experience’ he craves, and what his superiors who are stalling his promotion say he lacks – or he will quickly find himself dead.
The fact that he comes out at the end of the film walking and talking isn’t much of a spoiler. But how he gets there is both the crux of the film and its weakest point. If he says he’s bored out of his gourd as a housekeeper, it is true, If his superiors say he lacks field experience, it is also true. But when the chips are down he out runs, out thinks, out drives, and out fights everyone they toss at him.
If anything Reynolds looked a tad too old to be the inexperienced agent they said he was. But this too is a minor quibble.
Basically it comes down to this; if you want a superbly written screenplay with new twists, sharp and edgy dialogue – the kind of movie that gets into your head – you won’t find it in this film. But if you want to get caught up in an exciting adrenaline rush kind of film, that gets its hands around your neck and makes your heart beat faster; if you want a film that is definitively the anti-tinker/tailor, then this one is surely the right recipe. Four point zero.