The Good: Character, Action, Acting! Most of the plot.
The Bad: A few obvious plot/character moments.
The Basics: For the first time (maybe ever?!) a film depicts intelligence operatives who make decisions as if they were real, emotionally aware, human beings! Safe House is every bit as impressive as I’d hoped!
Every now and then, I learn something important about movies. Yesterday, I learned two exceptionally important things. The first thing is that movie previews have dramatically changed. It used to be that when one went to the movies, they were treated to two to four movies that might appeal to the same demographic as those watching the film they were about to see. But yesterday, as I sat in the theater waiting for Safe House to begin – and I had a similar experience to this when seeing Chronicle a few weeks back! – I sat through eight previews, most of which were for movies that would not appeal to the Safe House audience. I mean, I was jazzed to see the preview for Prometheus on the big screen (I cannot wait for one that actually has dialogue in it!), but I highly doubt that the audience that might appreciate the smart, tense, sophisticated Safe House is really the audience that is going to see Project X, Battleship and 21 Jump Street. No, it appears that advertisers are going with a shotgun approach and they aren’t even trying to make reasonable associations with the movie one goes to see and the previews shown before it. I suppose I am beginning with this rant because it’s true and because I tend to like to have something concrete to complain about, lest it seems I have gone soft and write a thoroughly gushing review.
Because that was the second thing I learned yesterday: February is no longer exclusively the dumping ground of crap movies. Sure, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance (link below) is working desperately hard to disprove that theory, but Safe House is all the proof I need that movie distributors suddenly realized that if you release a truly great movie in February, you can have a memorable winner, as opposed to leaving audiences unenthusiastic about an entire month of February. Safe House, like Defiance a few years back, reminds viewers how great movies do not have to be released only during the Early Push (my new term for the late-August, early-September Oscar Buzz Grab Season) or Oscar Pandering Season (Thanksgiving through the end of the nominating season because, as it turns out, Oscar voters and nominators have the world’s shortest attention span). Will nominators remember Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, director Daniel Espinosa and writer David Guggenheim when next year’s award season begins? Probably not. But they should.
Matt Weston is a housekeeper working at a quiet safe house in Cape Town, trying hard to get transferred from his dull post to France so he and his girlfriend won’t have to break up. Weston is friends with David Barlow, a high-ranking CIA operative, who has the ear of the Assistant Director. When a rogue operative, Tobin Frost, acquires some devastating data in an encrypted file worth millions and is chased by thugs, he makes a tactical decision to enter the U.S. consulate in South Africa. Cooperative and almost eager, Tobin allows himself to be transported to the safe house Weston operates and even allows himself to be interrogated brutally by Kiefer.
But when the same goons attack the safe house, Weston and Frost are the only agents to make it out alive. Fleeing for their lives, Matt follows protocol and tries to keep Tobin Frost safe while keeping Ana, his girlfriend, out of a potential firefight as well. But Tobin Frost soon gets into Weston’s head with the simple question, how did the goons know about the safe house and how to breach it? As Matt runs for his life with Tobin in tow, Barlow and Linklater intellectually duke it out in Washington to try to get Frost and Weston back into the fold. Following their directions, Weston ends up at a stadium where Frost has an opportunity to escape his custody, multiplying his problems!
Safe House is smart, tense and above all, it is character driven. I recall when I saw The Negotiator with my dad and he and I talked about it afterwards. One of the things he liked about it – and I agreed with him – was how both Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson were so plausible as crisis negotiators. At the time, I think I might have brushed it off as great casting, but the truth is, both actors truly rose to the roles. In a similar way, Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington are amazing as Matt Weston and Tobin Frost, respectively. The moment I realized how perfectly cast they were and how they were both playing at the top of their game was when the pair has a surprisingly brutal fight while driving the car away from the safe house. In that fight, both make tactical decisions and there are moments where the viewer can see them calculating behind their eyes, reasoning exactly what they can afford to give up and what they believe they can get out of certain moves. That’s brilliant acting and both seem utterly believable as they make their moves.
While a lot of credit has to go to writer David Guggenheim, the actors truly rose to the wonderful script. Even so, Guggenheim wrote characters who are essentially human and that is why Safe House works so unbelievably well. The characters in Safe House react absolutely like real people. There is almost no suspension of disbelief required and the film is smart enough to not insult the viewers. Even so, it is ridiculously smart. For this, I credit Guggenheim. David Guggenheim has a clear understanding of human psychology and he plays with it very well in Safe House. The relationship between Matt and Ana seems very real. Matt is still young, he is lying to Ana about his profession (which is reasonable in the case of a spy) and he actually seems to love her. So, when his safe house is attacked and he realizes that someone on the inside of the CIA is connected, his first call is to Ana. He tries to get her as far from the impending bloodbath as he can. That’s human.
Matt is not the only deeply human character in Safe House. The film plays out as well as it does because while Tobin Frost is introduced as an antagonist, he is almost immediately revealed to be a patriot. Weston watches in deep discomfort as Frost is tortured by Kiefer, but Frost’s resistance is not bravado. He comes to the situation with realistic expectations and a strong knowledge of the techniques that Kiefer is employing upon him. Frost is presented as more than just a former asset who went rogue, he still has things he deeply cares about. At the same time, he is willing to shoot a man in the face (and he does, several times). Still, one of the best scenes in the film comes late when Tobin meets up with Carlos Villar. That, admittedly, is a treat of watching two great actors – Denzel Washington and Ruben Blades – play off one another.
So, what is there not to like about Safe House? It has an engaging plot, amazing acting, interesting characters and amazing action sequences (I cannot remember the last time I actually enjoyed a car chase in movies). First, for all of the things director Daniel Espinosa does right in Safe House, he goes a bit over-the-top during many of the chase and fight sequences. Using a handheld camera for the fights and chases is supposed to make a moment seem more immediate and real, but it’s passé. It’s been done, we’ve seen it, I’m bored by it. Safe House suffers at a few points because Espinosa is worrying too much about the flash while smearing the substance. Safe House is urgent, tense and exciting; there were moments I wanted to actually see that better. In other words, when all sorts of guns are going off, I know that it’s a dangerous chaotic moment and at this point in filmmaking, I want to be able to enjoy it as opposed to simply feeling like I am watching a movie while on a moving roller coaster. Similarly, if you are going to have two young white guys who look virtually identical duke it out and the only real distinguishing thing about them as they grapple is that one is wearing a flannel with a pattern, for the love of all that is good and holy, light the damn scene so we can see who is who!
And don’t have my favorite actor in the piece be the villain. Seriously. I loved Safe House, but the moment I saw the mole, I knew exactly who it was. And I wanted so much to be surprised!
That said, Safe House is legitimately great. Vera Farmiga gets to move around a bit more as Agent Linklater than she did playing a similar character in Source Code (reviewed here!) and she plays off Brendan Gleeson (Barlow) and Sam Shepard (Assistant Director Whitford) very well. Farmiga, like Reynolds, Gleeson, Shepard and Washington, seems like an absolute professional and entirely plausible as a high-ranking CIA agent. Safe House also features notable supporting performances by Robert Patrick (Kiefer) and Ruben Blades (Villar).
So far in 2012, theatergoers have been bombarded with spy movies and it doesn’t look like that is about to stop this weekend. So far, hands down, the best spy film of the year – and the best film of 2012 this early in – is Safe House. It is worthy of your attention and your dollars and the time to enjoy it on the big screen.
For other works with Ryan Reynolds, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Waiting . . .
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© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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