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Non-Review Review: Safe House

Safe House is a perfectly fine international thriller, which manages to effectively capture the look and feel of its setting in South Africa. Light on plot and characterisation, but heavy on action and atmosphere, Safe House isn’t necessarily required viewing. In fact, it has a great deal of difficulty convincing the audience to emotionally invest in either of the two lead characters. Still, director Daniel Espinosa keeps things ticking over with a workman-like efficiency on a simple plot and Denzel Washington is as charming a leading man as ever.

Safe as houses…

Safe House is one of the more recent films preoccupied with the global implications of American intelligence gathering. When international fugitive Tobin Frost is apprehended in Cape Town, he’s immediately taken to the local “safe house” to receive a working over from an “extraction team.” It’s implied that Frost wasn’t immediately moved out of the country expressly so that he could be subjected to rather brutal enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding.

Naturally, things go pear-shaped pretty quickly, and Tobin finds himself in the care of the young “housekeeper” Matt Weston. Weston is an inexperienced operative with no idea how to deal with the situation. Naturally, as Tobin and Weston form an unlikely and antagonistic relationship, they both discover that there’s something very sinister and rotten going on here. Though Matt is reluctant to believe it, the more cynical and experienced Tobin suggests that perhaps there’s an “inside man”working inside the Agency to have him eliminated.

“Hey, Ryan. I was only kidding when I said I didn’t care for Green Lantern…”

The plot itself is fairly standard stuff. The pair work together and against one another while being chased by all manner of nefarious individuals. Tobin, naturally, has something that somebody badly wants, and refuses to share any useful information with his protector. There are very few surprises in the form or structure of Safe House. In fact, I could guess the twist fairly early on just by adhering to genre conventions. Nobody will be too shocked or startled by what unfolds.

Neither Tobin nor Weston are especially compelling characters. Tobin is a character with rough edges, naturally, and yet there’s something almost vaguely heroic about the operative-turned-entrepreneur. Weston is initially quite innocent, and finds that innocence eroded by an increasingly harsh reality. Tobin is a little bit more fascinating, if only because Washington has a wonderful screen presence, a charm that helps him breath life into even the most shallow of characters. Reynolds struggles a bit more playing the inexperienced agent tasked with protecting Tobin, but I imagine that the role was pretty thankless anyway.

Shattered illusions…

However, director Espinosa does manage to inject a bit of life into this extended chase sequence. There are several quite effective “jump” moments that illustrate Espinosa actually has a fairly efficient knack for timing. After all, it’s fairly obvious what is coming next at these points, but Espinosa manages to time the moment just well enough that it catches the audience just slightly off guard. It’s a rare skill, and it would be interesting to see what Espinosa could do with a stronger script, one less mired in the clichés of the modern spy genre, the brutality and cynicism of today’s espionage thriller.

Espinosa also does an effective job of managing the thriller’s action sequences. While there’s nothing too memorable, he does a fairly effective job of keeping his audience aware of the mechanics of his set pieces – where the characters are and what they are doing at any given moment. He does tend to get a bit choppy when it comes to close-up hand-to-hand fighting sequences, adopting the quick-cut methodology defined by The Bourne Identity all those years ago. Still, Espinosa does an effective job rendering the thrills.

Speaking off the cuff, of course…

He also does a good job of characterising South Africa. The movie was filmed there, and Epinosa manages to capture its character remarkably well. The camera seems to favour yellow hues, and there’s no awkward attempt to desaturate the shots. The movie manages to take in a varied amount of the South African landscape, from Cape Town city centre to the townships to the countryside. All of it is put on screen to great effect, and Espinosa makes the countryside a character in its own right.

The somewhat light script is assisted by some superb casting in supporting roles. Veteran character actors like Robert Patrick, Rubén Blades, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham and Sam Shepard all appear in relatively small roles. None of these characters are ever really fleshed out – much less developed than the fairly two dimensional lead characters – but the actors all do the best that they can with the material provided.

Hardly an arresting drama…

Safe House isn’t an exceptional film by any stretch. It’s plot and characters are shallow and paper-thin. As such, it’s hard to invest in the efficient action sequences and the beautiful cinematography. Still, it does a decent job of offering an entertaining spy thriller, albeit one that is far from memorable.

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