A young CIA agent is tasked with looking after a fugitive in a safe house. But when the safe house is attacked, he finds himself on the run with his charge.
Reviewing for AccessReel is obviously a life of glamorous parties, alcohol on tap and free merch’. You knew this. However, you were probably unaware that we receive our instructions about what to review, Mission Impossible-style. A courier delivers the gizmo that will self-destruct; the voice of Darran, our mysterious editor, tells us which film to see and where. So we know something about the target…er review film. However with SAFE HOUSE that perfect system broke down.
Which is to say, I went to see this movie truly knowing nothing about it except that it starred Ryan Reynolds. Denzel Washington and in all probability involved some kind of “house” that was “safe”. So armed with complete ignorance and an insufficient reading of the opening credits, I embarked upon watching what I had decided must be the latest offering from Tony Scott, the director of MAN ON FIRE, ENEMY OF THE STATE and TOP GUN.
Turns out that SAFE HOUSE is actually the work of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa. It is his fourth feature and his first in English. This spy action thriller introduces us to the life of a low-ranking CIA man, Matt Weston, who runs a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He is known as the housekeeper and his role is to wait for a telephone call from his bosses while he sits in a locked-down, teched-up facility. Matt has been waiting for that call for twelve months and is angling for a promotion to Paris. Cape Town is not a hot-bed of spy activity and the young agent is restless.
Finally, the boredom is relieved when a dangerous rogue spy, Tobin Frost (Washington), is brought in. Frost is on the run from unknown forces and he turns himself in at the US consulate in Cape Town. The US government have been hunting this dangerous fugitive since he began selling state secrets nine years ago. Now they have him back, the CIA plan to torture Frost and discover what he has sold and to whom.
We know that Frost is a force to be reckoned with because from the moment he is in CIA hands his name is uttered in hushed, awed tones by all the characters on screen. Tobin Frost rewrote the book on Interrogation, we are told. He was first in his class, scored off the charts, flipped more foreign agents than McDonald’s has flipped burgers and so on. It all sounds faintly ridiculous, but because Denzel Washington can embody menace and intelligence with ease, it works well enough.
The interrogation begins, but soon there’s a game-changing moment and for Matt Weston everything goes to Hell In A Handbasket.
Back home in the United States the operation is overseen by CIA boss Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) and his minions Catherine Linklater (Farmiga) and David Barlow (Gleeson). They are second-guessing events from a distance and arguing amongst themselves about who is doing what to whom in Cape Town. Meanwhile Weston’s career, and possibly life, hang in the balance.
All the elements of SAFE HOUSE will be familiar to audiences. Everything is executed with slick professionalism. The script has a couple of clever and exciting moments, but is not particularly complex or tricky. The dialogue isn’t memorable, but it does its job efficiently. Most of the key roles are in the hands of solid performers who are required to bring their considerable acting chops to make this standard stuff play well. Vera Farmiga playing a wary careerist is no stretch for her. Brendan Gleeson can do “man with a dangerous secret” in his sleep. Reynolds has chosen a number of dramatic roles lately. His trademark smirkiness is nowhere to be seen and he is convincing as a man way out of his depth. Washington is as good as expected. His usual charm is purposely turned down low.
Director Espinosa handles the frequent action sequences well. The editing is fast, inspired by the Bourne movies as many recent actioners seems to be. However the Paul Greengrass style shakey-cam is not in evidence. If anything, the choreography of the on-screen violence seems reminiscent of veteran director Tony Scott. I would also argue the film’s overly-processed look and the type of story told, would make any Tony Scott fan feel very comfortable with what is on offer. Daniel Espinosa has directed the best Tony Scott movie I have ever seen.
This is a simple tale that never goes deep. The relationship between the male leads is the stuff of a John Ford Western. Being proficient at what you do is the ultimate compliment in this world. The espionage storyline is window dressing that lends the film some moral ambiguity and seriousness. At base SAFE HOUSE is a middlebrow entertainment where everything is dialled down except for the action. I was hardly ever surprised, but I was mostly engaged by this film.
SAFE HOUSE is currently screening in Australia. It runs for 115 minutes. I rated it 3/5.