There are movies that try to be good by doing something new, and others that try to entertain by faithfully sticking to a formula. “Safe House” is the second kind of movie, sticking to a formula so faithfully you almost admire the tenacity—all the way down to the generic title.
But, while the ride is going, it’s decently entertaining. Basically one long chase sequence, it starts out with rogue former CIA agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) in Capetown, South Africa, on the run from swarthy bad guys. Eventually, he ends up on the run with Boy Scout-ish low level agency employee Matt Westin (Ryan Reynolds), who supposedly has Frost in custody, though it doesn’t always work out that way.
Along the way, the cameras are wobbly, the car chases absurd, the gunshots loud and plentiful, the double-crosses right on schedule. The major characters repeatedly take the kind of damage that would put lesser (read: real) men in the hospital. Frost plays a sort of fast-talking anti-father figure to Westin, simultaneously trying to get inside his head and sometimes unwittingly educating the him how, and how not, to be a better agent and a better man. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s might be because you’ve already seen it in “Training Day” (2001).
Of course, if this were 2001, there wouldn’t be a waterboarding scene, or the Wikileaks-type subplot. Speaking of reality being more mundane than fiction, the real life version features two guys—Bradley Manning and Julian Assange—who appear to have far less testosterone that Washington and Reynolds. But don’t we all.
A second opinion by Tony Sheppard
I agree that there’s a formulaic or familiar feel to “Safe House” but I wouldn’t have cited “Training Day” as the model, despite the similarities. For me this goes further back and feels more like a contemporary remake of “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) – perhaps “Three Days of the Springbok.” In both, a low grade CIA employee works a mundane job in a seemingly secret and safe location until havoc sets in, in the form of everybody around them getting slaughtered. They’re then left to figure out who to trust on their way in from the cold.
I found the chase sequences somewhat more realistic, with impacts and collisions that felt refreshingly real rather than the commonplace CGI post-production insertions. And I had an equally different take on the rough stuff. These characters certainly take a moderate beating better than I would, but this isn’t from the Timex school of fight choreography either: It’s not the “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking” Jason Bourne approach where they’re seemingly back to full operational status two scenes later. These guys take a beating and look like they took a beating: This is a war of steady attrition with two potentially well-matched characters at opposite ends of their respective careers.
On a different topic, this is the second film I’ve watched in a few days set in South Africa – the other being the surprisingly effective “found footage” teen thriller “Chronicle.” And both films could have been set anywhere – there’s nothing that requires that location from a plot perspective – albeit that “Safe House” openly integrates the location. So I’m going to take a wild guess and assume that South Africa is joining the long list of jurisdictions that are actively competing for film productions through financial incentives – something that almost everybody but us seems to have a good handle on.
Back to “Safe House” – I enjoyed it more than I expected. It seems very solid and well structured, albeit predictable. And the action feels less staged and fake than most films of this type. Espinosa isn’t a first-time director but this is his most visible outing to date and it’s an encouraging one.
“Journey 2: the Mysterious Island” is, at best, silly fun for young audiences. However, at times it also feels like we don’t have a very high opinion of children. This is a film where characters go from encountering giant bees in one moment to flying them the next. And not just riding them where they happen to go (and certainly not having any interesting dialog about bee flight patterns) but piloting them with the skill of an experienced, dog-fighting fighter ace. It’s the fastest flight school since Barry Pepper mastered the Harrier jump jet in “Battlefield Earth.” It’s a film in which the main characters seem to know what to do at every turn, despite every turn unveiling a new and different obstacle. Need to re-activate a 140 year old submarine with miraculously preserved running gear? No problem, not only do I have the user manual memorized, I also have the lung capacity of a sponge diver!
Another movie that instills a sense of frustration, albeit for entirely different reasons, is “The Vow.” Here, a young couple’s life is torn apart when the wife sustains a brain injury that causes her to forget both the husband and the marriage. It’s not frustrating because it’s bad, it’s frustrating because the situation being depicted is itself so inherently frustrating. So the emotional outcome feels somewhat genuine, despite possibly not being what most people seek out in their film entertainment. At some point, however awful the thought, I found myself wondering if the husband should have whacked her in the head again – after all she can’t forget him twice. But that’s not exactly consistent with the romantic drama genre. It’s a story inspired by real events and it leaves you wanting to watch an interview with the real life characters, which makes the narrative seem somewhat unresolved.
Other film news:
The Crest Theatre is continuing its tradition of screening the Academy Award nominated short films in time for the ceremony. And this year, for the first time in Sacramento, it includes the chance to see the documentary shorts. The animated and live-action narrative shorts both open, in alternating separate programs, on Friday, February 10th (continuing at least through the 16th). The documentary shorts will be screened one time only at 7pm on Thursday, February 23rd. More details at thecrest.com.