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Don’t Leave the Safety On

Safe House (2012)

Universal Pictures

Clichés in “Safe House”: skilled C.I.A. agent gone rogue, naïve rookie agent with superb talents, bureaucratic director, gruff and mysterious senior officer, unnecessary blonde girlfriend, shaky camera, fight sequences with quick cuts, an obligatory car chase, poor character development, a double cross, a triple cross, an action-thriller without thrills, boredom.

Most of the film’s opening act focuses on the illegal trade of a high-security file in South Africa. The buyer is Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a rogue C.I.A. agent who is also wanted for treasonous activities in ten different countries. Frost plans to sell the ambiguous file for millions of dollars on the black market, but he is ambushed by armed men and only escapes death by turning himself in at the American embassy.

A team of Americans escorts Frost to an empty safe house in Cape Town where the audience gets to meet Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), the neophyte C.I.A pretty boy who wants a promotion to a city with more espionage action. The escort team begins to torture Frost, but the waterboarding is interrupted when the same ambushers from the beginning break into the safe house, guns blazing. Weston thinks quickly and escapes with Frost after a decently executed car-chase sequence crashes through the city. For the remainder of the plot, the wide-eyed Weston must guard Frost and prevent him from escaping as the C.I.A. bosses in Langley, Va. to try to figure out what went wrong.

Mr. Washington’s knack for creating unconventional characters is the only thing working for “Safe House.” He has clearly settled into an action niche over the past decade; and although his pattern of newer roles undermines a lot of his powerful work from the ’90s, his talent finds a way to seep through bad scripts. He portrays Frost as quick-witted and off-kilter, and even manages to dig out some humor in a movie that takes itself way too seriously. Yet even Mr. Washington’s acting cannot maintain the allure of Frost, who turns out to be more of an anti-hero trope instead of the manipulative sociopath he appears to be early on.

Overdone action sequences and a very lifeless script sabotage the rest of the acting. Mr. Reynolds looks good and tries hard, but the role of Weston reeks of blandness. Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard play the important C.I.A. bosses, and all three are talented; but their parts in this film are either too insignificant or too forced. Perhaps they needed a quick paycheck? Audiences will really be wondering why Ms. Farmiga signed up for a role that has about five-minutes of screen time and requires her to wear a pantsuit while reciting lines such as: “He was one of the most brilliant C.I.A. operatives we ever had — until he went rogue.”

Director Daniel Espinosa does a very mediocre Doug Liman impersonation. The film’s editor, Richard Pearson, even chopped up “The Bourne Supremacy.” But now it’s time to discontinue the Jason Bourne aesthetic. Quick cuts and a shaky camera no longer carry the novelty impact they once did in 2002. The aesthetic worked so well in “The Bourne Identity,” because the disorienting editing and camera movements complemented Jason Bourne’s struggle to remember his past while recovering from amnesia. His uncertainty became the viewer’s uncertainty. But in “Safe House,” one gets the feeling Messrs. Espinosa and Pearson used the same filmmaking techniques simply because the final product is supposed to look cool. Most of the time it doesn’t look cool, and cheap tricks cannot hide the shallow production decisions that made this a below-average film with some let’s-watch-this-on-premium-cable-to-pass-the-time appeal.


Opens on Feb. 10 in the United States and on Feb. 24 in the United Kingdom.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa; written by David Guggenheim; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Richard Pearson; music by Ramin Djawadi; production design by Brigitte Broch; costumes by Susan Matheson; produced by Scott Stuber; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Denzel Washington (Tobin Frost), Ryan Reynolds (Matt Weston), Vera Farmiga (Catherine Linklater), Brendan Gleeson (David Barlow), Sam Shepard (Harlan Whitford), Rubén Blades (Carlos Villar), Nora Arnezeder (Ana) and Robert Patrick (Kiefer).


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