'Safe House' Provides Sound Action and Villains

Safe House -- Dir. Daniel Espinosa (Universal Pictures) -- 4 Stars

Who knew the CIA had such an extensive real-estate portfolio? In “Safe House,” rookie CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), armed with an Ivy-League pedigree, gets to baby-sit off-the-grid, international “safe houses,” where key witnesses and other agents can stay under protection. One day, bureaucrat David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) decides that Weston has had enough experience “staring at four walls all day” waiting for something to happen. Fortunately, with a combination of Reynold’s and Washington’s superb acting and an unconventional setting for an action flick, “Safe House” provides adrenaline of the type Weston would crave.

Agent Weston is played with focus and intensity by Reynolds—who redeems himself from the glowing green ashes of his 2011  “Green Lantern” fiasco. He runs a safe house nested in downtown Cape Town, South Africa, where he is bored beyond belief until rogue CIA operative Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) arrives after a daring escape from mercenaries. Denzel Washington, who is best remembered for quiet, measured performances in movies like “Remember the Titans,” and “The Great Debaters,” plays a different type of quiet: dangerous. He commands the screen by deftly fashioning a character whose stoicism creates lasting suspense over whether or not his character is truly “rogue.”

Weston is forced to rise to the occasion as the mercenaries shoot their way into the super-secret, high-tech abode. Their too-easy entrance also provides the first clue that most likely no one is safe, no one can be trusted, and everyone—including Weston—has been targeted for elimination by a “mole” on the inside. Abandoning the safe house with Frost, the James Bond of CIA operatives, in tow Weston is on the run and equipped only with office skills. But, Weston believes if he can deliver Frost to his CIA bosses, he’ll get a promotion out of house-sitting and be able to follow his smoking hot girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) to Paris.

“Safe House” follow the mold of the modern, violent action flick. Bullets fly and cars crash, which performs an intense urban renewal upon Cape Town. The carnage that ensues is breathtaking, and the body count, blood, and gore accumulate rapidly as a large cadre of faceless bad guys joins the hunt. While these elements of the film provide only the bare minimum requirement for its genre, the semi-urban Cape Town setting  provides an unconventional setting for an American action film. Weston and Frost run through both shanties and modern office buildings, with plenty of open space for director Daneil Espinosa to choreograph well-shot violence.

For example, the gunfight among the boxy shanties of the slum is well-staged as Weston and Frost use the geometrically-convenient space for a dramatic shoot-out, using people’s homes as cover. Thus, the film avoids overdone city locations and clichéd, running-and-shooting gunfights.

Weston and Frost’s repartee also provides a tense atmosphere of witty and fresh dialogue. ”[When the CIA says] ‘You’ve done a fine job, Son. We’ll take it from here.’  That’s when you know you’re screwed,” Frost says to Weston, advising him to be wary of the platitudes of his CIA bosses.

Much of the plot follows a formulaic mash-up of “24,” “Die Hard,” and “True Lies”: the rookie learns from and bests the experienced mentor, the government agents are shady, and the bad guys somehow magically know where the heroes are going. However, in the same vein, the action flick formula can also provide the chance for a great villain to shine—such as “Die Hard” and the legendary Hans Gruber. The reveal of the ultimate villain in “Safe House,” the CIA that Weston and Frost serve, creates an unusual antagonist that prevents the film’s more cliched elements from overwhelming the new ones. This choice for a genre that loves a singular supervillain may not be safe, but it is ultimately sound.

—Staff writer Alexander J. Spencer can be reached at alexanderspencer@college.harvard.edu.

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