Sunday, February 19, 2012
Movie Review: Safe House
Safe House is the story of Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a low level CIA guy stuck in a nowhere job and desperately wanting to get more involved. His chance comes when notorious traitor and expert spy Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is forced to surrender to the US Embassy in South Africa to elude being killed by a large, well-trained army of henchmen.
Taken to the safe house ran by Weston for safe-keeping, Frost proves to be highly sought-after. The well-trained CIA team finds itself under a well-co-ordinated attack. During the assault Frost convinces Weston that he will be killed while Frost is kept alive so Weston elects to try to take Frost back to the embassy.
Power plays in the CIA headquarters result in him being told to stay away from the embassy until a specified time. As he wheels around the city trying to keep Frost both under arrest and safe, it becomes obvious somebody within the CIA is leaking information.
As a side note, I had the who pegged within the first 10 minutes of the film, I thought it was that obvious...though later they throw some red herrings out that might let the unwary viewer begin to suspect someone else. It is a minor quibble...writing a solid Benedict Arnold into a story like this with concealed motivations and actions is very difficult.
By the time the final showdown is reached Weston has changed his goals completely. His use of a key phrase in the movie to respond to the CIA chief in his exit interview is pitch perfect.
The things I love about this movie are multitude. The villains are solid and believable. Unlike some action-adventure movies where the villains are incompetent buffoons who would seem incapable of defeating a well armed termite, these are very competent...as are the CIA team they take out at the safe house.
This matters. All too often, in order to make the ultimate hero of the piece seem stronger their allies are imbeciles who would be defeated in a battle versus snowmen in Death Valley in July. In this case they are quite talented, put up an expert defense and are overcome, thus leading to the villains being a credible threat.
Second, the characters of Frost and Weston are done well enough to draw you in. Though entertaining movies like this one are never hailed on Oscar night, the acting in it is excellent; you do not see Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington, you actually see Weston and Frost.
Third, the camera work was mostly well done. While there were moments of jump-cuts, close ups during fights, etc., for the most part we were actually allowed to see what was happening. When you go to an action movie and actually get to SEE the action it makes it much better.
I also liked the synergy of the name Weston. I instantly tagged it as being a reference to the titular star of Burn Notice, Michael Westen (Jefferey Donovan). It lent a certain fictional credibility to the idea a guy like Weston who had spent his entire CIA career in a low-profile, action less safe house could run, drive, shoot, and miracle his way to getting the bad guy, recovering the information, and surviving.
Of course, there also must be quibbles, so in the interest of fairness, there were a couple things I did not like about the movie. First of course would be those moments when they failed to let us see the action. Fewer than in many movies, they were still there.
Second would be a rather major one; the difference between the movie as previewed and the movie as executed.
In the scene in question Weston is on the ground as a train roars by. Frost holds a gun to his head as he cringes in fear. Each time Weston spouts a line, then fires the gun right next to his head, the concussive blast then disorienting Weston. The problem is the line in the previews and the line in the movie are so different it completely changes the focus of the movie.
In the movie Frost says, "I only kill professionals." Fair enough. Good reason for letting Weston off the hook in their world.
The problem lies here; in the preview the line is, "I WANT you to take me in." The clear inference is there is some reason Frost needs to be taken into secure intelligence community quarters. It implies he fires the shot to show Weston it is for his own purpose. This is reinforced by a moment in the previews where two CIA honchos are talking and one says, "A guy like Frost doesn't just walk into an American Embassy".*
Therefore, the expectation set by the previews of Frost having some ingenious purpose for willingly and intentionally being captured by the CIA is never fulfilled; it is a false premise and unfair to those paying attention.
Third, watching Weston go from never having fired a weapon to out-shooting crack commando teams was a bit of a jolt that threatened to pull me out of the moment, though ultimately the story was fun enough to make that no big deal and, after all, we do want our heroes to be capable as well.
With that aside, it was still a very entertaining, pretty action-packed, layered bit of film-making that was worth the price of admission. Hopefully I was able to give the gist of the story without giving away any of the spoilers.
*Not a direct quote, but pretty close