A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2012


2012, R, 115 mins.


Denzel Washington: Tobin Frost / Ryan Reynolds: Matt Weston / Vera Farmiga: Agent Linkater / Brendan Gleeson: Sam Barlow / Sam Shepherd: Harlan Whitford / Fares Fares: Vargas 


Directed by Daniel Espinosa / Written by David Guggenheim

If you want to see a film where all of the good will it contains on a grade-A performance level is summarily unraveled by its paper thin and ambitionless script and an aesthetic style that’s borderline nauseating than look no further than SAFE HOUSE.  

The film’s only real pleasure is that the rock solid and always dependable Denzel Washington.  He has a field day playing an enigmatic former American spy that seems like he’s about ten moves ahead of everyone else in the film.  Washington anchors SAFE HOUSE and keeps our interest with his calculated portrayal of a rogue agent that has a chillingly understated sociopathic charm.  I just wish that the script offered more with the material than serving up standard-order spy thriller conventions (i.e.- American spy-turned-traitor is actually a hero because the government is in fact the corrupt villain) and that the film’s style did not pummel me into a near thumb-sucking fetal position in my theater seat. 

At least Washington's character, Tobin Frost, is an appealingly intoxicating bad ass that keeps the film from completely imploding under the weight of its glaring faults.  Frost is an ex-CIA agent turned internationally wanted criminal that has apparently betrayed his home country, but along the way he managed to acquire a secret microchip file detailing a series of highly unethical and illegal activities perpetrated by several world governments, including the U.S..  This has made him a hotly sought after target by the upper brass at Langley, including an operative named Catherine Linkater (the decent Vera Farmiga) and her boss (Sam Shepherd).  Frost is also ruthlessly hunted down by a mercenary named Vargas (Fares Fares) and his group that will stop at nothing to exterminate Frost at first contact. 

At one point early in the film it appears that Vargas will intercept Frost, so he decides to surrender himself to the American Embassy in Cape Town, South Africa.  After being processed by government agents, he is taken to a secret safe house location that is run by a lowly operative, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who’s gunning for something more than a boring desk job.  When Frost arrives Matt witnesses him being tortured and water boarded for Intel by another grizzled veteran agent (Robert Patrick), but before any information can be forced from Frost, Vargas and his men show up to make matters worse. 

After Vargas’ attempt on Frost's life at the safe house fails, Matt realizes that the only way to stay alive – and impress his superiors back home – is to escort Frost to a new safe house and evade detection, capture and death.  Matt gets guidance from his mentor, Sam Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), but his phone conversations are intercepted by Agent Linkater, who explicitly instructs Matt to lay low and stay off the grid for as long as possible while awaiting instructions from Langley.  Of course, keeping a man as notoriously dangerous as Frost in his custody proves to be a difficult challenge, especially because of the way Frost mentally toys with Matt.  Along with the hazards of taking on such an impromptu assignment, Matt develops nagging trust issues not only with Frost, but also with his government back home when secrets are revealed and Frost’s real end game and history comes to the forefront. 



SAFE HOUSE, as mentioned, is highly secure on a performance level.  Washington manages to create a figure of solemn and quiet spoken menace throughout the film in Frost; he’s often intimidating when he's reduced to just sitting, observing, and assessing the people around him while tied up, which, of course, makes the in-over-his-head Matt all the more paranoid and uncertain.  Even though Frost as a character is sort of underwritten and remains a dodgy and vaguely defined persona even by the end of the film, Washington nonetheless makes him a potent figure of continual interest just based on his slick performance.  Reynolds is certainly no thespian match for his co-star, but he’s a credible presence in the film even though his role goes on an obligatory journey from greenhorn and inexperienced agent to a rough, rugged, and steely eyed operative of determination and vigor.  The supporting cast of Farmiga, Gleeson, and Shepherd are also in fine form too. 

Yet, SAFE HOUSE really falters with its script that goes through so many preordained movements for the spy thriller genre.  You have the grizzled, world weary, and ruthless ex-CIA man in Frost that begins to lure the untested and initially suspicious Matt into his worldview about the villainous activities of his own government.  Then you have the requisite government agents that are either righteous and moral or secretly have duplicitous motives that would make them traitors if discovered from within (the film telegraphs who the CIA-back stabber is fairly early on, which lessens the emotional payoff later in the film).  We are also given the perfunctory love interest of the main hero, who does not know of Matt’s real occupational life and, when she does discover it, is a broken mess of conflicted emotions (it’s not helped when she’s played in a pure window dressing performance by the luscious, but relatively bland Nora Arnezeder).  Lastly, we have a climax where all parties come to a head and loyalties are divided and redefined, not because they’re plausible, but more because the script requires it. 

What’s even worse is how SAFE HOUSE’s overall visual style pathetically masks the film’s lack of ingenuity and tension.  Directed by Swedish-Chilean director Daniel Espinosa as if he were doing to a plagiaristic copy of the more insidious aspects of Tony Scott’s eye-punishing eccentricities, SAFE HOUSE is disparagingly filmed in hyper-saturated and contrast blasted color schemes, edited with a rapid fire and frenetic incomprehensibility, and is shot so annoyingly tight and in perpetually moving close-ups that it becomes a Herculean ocular feat for any viewer to simply make semblance of almost all of the action set pieces.  The queasy and shaky cam histrionics becomes so unbearable at times that the pacing, rhythm, and overall geography of the mayhem becomes impossible to disseminate.  A lengthy car chase sequence, for instance, through the streets of Cape Town is a nightmare of anxious and jittery editorial overkill. 

Why, I must ask time and time again, are so many modern action film directors obliged to render action with such dizzying and indecipherable aesthetic levels?  What ever happened to framing scenes with precision, clarity, and poise so that we can make some damn sense of what’s transpiring?  I think the answer is simply: over-working shots and editing to exhausting and fatiguing levels is used to cheaply hide a filmmakers’ lack of confidence in the finer avenues of story, pacing, and character dynamics and creates a false sense of thrilling tension when none is to be had.  SAFE HOUSE is a raw, ungainly, and simply ugly looking film to endure as a result and, most discouragingly, it embarrassingly squanders Washington’s on-screen gifts.  I rarely felt safe from this film’s assaultive sensory overload.

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