In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third and final installment in director Peter Jackson's fantasy epic, continued its reign at the box office with a cork-popping take of $51.2 million* over the holiday weekend. What's more, The Return of the King posted the best Christmas day gross ever, taking in $14.5 million on Dec. 25 alone. The film also crossed the $200 million mark after only 11 days, beating The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which took 12 days. That's definitely good news for New Line, whose Rings trilogy was a $300 million-plus make-or-break investment for the studio. Combined with the spirited take of four new wide releases, The Return of the King's strong legs also helped make this weekend the biggest Christmas weekend in box office history.The comedy Cheaper by the Dozen triumphed over rival newcomers hitting theaters this weekend, opening in second place with a generous three-day take of $28.2 million. The family comedy was followed by Cold Mountain, which debuted in the No. 3 position with nippy $14.5 million. Aided by its eight Golden Globe nominations and inclusion on many critics' Top 10 lists, the American Civil War drama is on a likely track for key Oscar nominations. Something's Gotta Give, now in its third week of release, placed fourth with $14.2 million, while the new Ben Affleck sci-fi thriller Paycheck, rounded out the Top Five with a foreseeable opening take of $13.9 million. The family pic Peter Pan, the last of this week's wide releases, kicked off in seventh place with a not-so-magical take of $11.4 million.Although this week's four new releases produced a combined first-day box office tally of almost $22 million, Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking service Exhibitor Relations, told The Associated Press Sunday the industry's total yearend box office revenues would likely fall short of last year's $9.3 billion record, marking the first year-to-year decline since 1991."The end of the year is looking pretty good," Dergarabedian said. "But not enough to jump ahead of last year's revenues ... because 2002 was so amazing."Last year, Hollywood benefited from an abundance of blockbusters, such as Spider-Man, Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and the sleeper hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $168.6 million, up 26.39 percent from last weekend's $133.4 million take and up 8.18 percent from last year's $155.8 million.THE TOP TENNew Line Cinema's PG-13 rated fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King kept its No. 1 stronghold in its second week of release with an ESTIMATED $51.2 million (-29%) at 3,703 theaters (unchanged; $13,833 per theater). Its cume is approximately $223.6 million. Directed by Peter Jackson, it stars Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan.Twentieth Century Fox's PG rated comedy Cheaper by the Dozen debuted in second place with $28.2 million in 3,298 theaters, with an $8,558 per theater average. In the film, a contemporary remake of the 1950 Walter Lang comedy based on the novel by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth, mayhem ensues as a couple moves their large family of 12 children from a small town to an affluent Chicago suburb.Directed by Shawn Levy, it stars Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hilary Duff and Tom Welling. Miramax Films' R rated Civil War drama Cold Mountain opened in third place with $14.5 million in 2,167 theaters with a $6,691 per theater average. In the film, a Confederate soldier makes the arduous journey from the front lines of the Civil War to his home in Cold Mountain, N.C., where his ladylove has been fighting battles of her own.Directed by Anthony Minghella, it stars Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give dropped one spot to fourth in its third week with an ESTIMATED $11.4 million (+24%) at 2,709 theaters (+32 theaters; $5,242 per theater). Its cume is approximately $56.3 million. Directed by Nancy Meyers, it stars Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Amanda Peet and Frances McDormand.Paramount Pictures' PG-13 rated sci-fi thriller Paycheck kicked off in the No. 5 position with $13.9 million in 2,762 theaters with a $5,033 per theater average. In the film, a "reverse-engineer" who has had three years of his memory erased by a multimillion-dollar corporation, tries to piece together his past using a collection of random objects.Directed by John Woo, it stars Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman.*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated drama Mona Lisa Smile fell from its runner-up position last week to sixth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $11.5 million (unchanged) in 2,677 theaters (unchanged; $4,296 per theater). Its cume is approximately $31.4 million.Directed by Mike Newell, it stars Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles.Universal Pictures' PG rated family pic Peter Pan opened in seventh place with $11.4 million at 2,813 theaters with a $4,053 per theater average. In the film, based on the classic J.M. Barrie novel, the Darling family children receive a visit from Peter Pan, who takes them to Neverland where an ongoing war with the evil pirate Captain Hook is taking place.Directed by P.J. Hogan, it stars Jeremy Sumpter, Jason Isaacs and Ludivine Sagnier. Warner Bros.' R rated period actioner The Last Samurai, fell four spots to eighth place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $8.3 million (+8%) in 2,557 theaters (-381; $3,273 per theater). Its cume is approximately $74.3 million.Directed by Edward Zwick, it stars Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn and Timothy Spall.Miramax Films' R rated dark comedy Bad Santa dropped two rungs to ninth place in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $4.5 million (-11%) at 1,710 theaters (-515 theaters; $2,644 per theater). Its cume is approximately $50.9 million. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and John Ritter.New Line Cinema's PG rated holiday comedy Elf fell five places in its eighth week to round out the Top 10 with an ESTIMATED $4.2 million (-22%) at 2,015 theaters (-436 theaters; $2,122 per theater). Its cume is approximately $164.8 million. Directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen.OTHERSSony Picture Classics' PG-13 rated dance drama The Company debuted in 11 theaters with $96,939, with a $8,813 per theater average.The film centers on a Chicago ballet company--the difficult daily work, the intense pressures of performance and the richly textured behaviors of the dancers, whose professional and personal lives grow impossibly close.Directed by Robert Altman, it stars Neve Campbell, James Franco and Malcolm McDowell.New Market's R rated biopic Monster opened in four theaters with $84,156 with an impressive $21,039 per theater average. The dark tale is based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, one of America's first female serial killers.Directed by Patty Jenkins, it stars Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci.WEEKEND COMPARISON Last year, New Line's PG-13 rated The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came in at No. 1 in its second week with $48.8 million in 3,622 theaters (unchanged; $13,494 per theater); DreamWorks' biopic Catch Me If You Can opened in second place with $30 million 3,156 theaters ($9,523 per theater); Warner Brothers' PG-13 rated romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice followed in third place in its second week of release with $15.5 million in 2,755 theaters (unchanged; $5,633 per theater).
Go to our Box Office section for recent weekend movie analysis.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.