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.
I expected Your Highness David Gordon Green's R-rated sword-and-sorcery farce to be a medieval stoner comedy something in the vein of Monty Python-meets-Cheech and Chong. This was not an unreasonable assumption given a) the film’s clearly suggestive title and b) the fact that its stars (Danny McBride and James Franco) and director previously collaborated on the THC-laced epic Pineapple Express. But I was waaaaaay off. Sure drug references abound in Your Highness but they are relatively benign in comparison to the film’s exhausting barrage of adolescent sexual humor and often shockingly crude language. Less bongs more schlongs is Your Highness' overriding ethos.
Taking care not to stray too far from the winning comic persona established in Eastbound & Down and The Foot Fist Way McBride plays Prince Thadeous a royal ne’er-do-well who lives in the shadow of his handsome older brother Prince Fabious (Franco) gallant knight and heir apparent to the throne of the kingdom of Mourne. While Fabious is out defending his father’s realm against various supernatural threats and earning acclaim for his illustrious deeds cowardly and entitled Thadeous parties with loose maidens and smokes hallucinogenic herbs with his twink-ish toadie Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). But he finds he can no longer shirk his heroic duties when an evil sorcerer named Leezar (Justin Theroux) crashes Fabious’ wedding and absconds with the crown prince’s fiancée Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). Urged to aid in his brother’s quest to rescue her Thadeous resists — that is until his father threatens to cut him off from the royal teat.
Very soon into his journey we discover why Thadeous was heretofore so reluctant to join in his brother’s adventures: Quests in the Your Highness universe entail an awful lot of encounters with homoeroticism – both latent and blatant. Knights dress in tights and codpieces and seem unusually affectionate toward one another. The price for advice from the Great Wize Wizard a bedridden seal-like creature wearing what looks to be a jellyfish as a skullcap is an open-mouthed kiss and a handjob. A sassy manservant is stripped of his clothing and revealed to be a eunuch. A tribe of feral women is ruled by a half-naked highly effete cherub-like figure named Marteetee. And so on.
Your Highness reaches its homoerotic apex during a pivotal scene in which Thadeous in his first real act of bravery intervenes to prevent Courtney from being raped by a minotaur which minotaur happens to be sporting a massive erection. Wanting a trophy to commemorate the deed he severs the slain beast’s still-engorged member and hangs it around his neck giving us for the remainder of the film a vivid monument to the filmmakers' most reliable comic device. (It’s an impressive sight – I fully expect “hung like a minotaur” to gain much greater prevalence in the lexicon should Your Highness be a hit.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And Your Highness does throw in a few hetero bits to help balance the sexual ledger especially when the cast is joined by Natalie Portman playing a feisty fellow-quester and McBride’s unlikely romantic foil. Portman should at the very least be commended for being able to utter lines about a "burning in her beaver" with unvarnished sincerity.
Your Highness is often wickedly funny – a filthy spot-on send-up of The Beastmaster Krull and other campy '80s fantasy flicks. But there’s precious little beyond the filth and eventually the bawdy language and infantile shenanigans grow repetitive especially when the plot starts to meander in the second act. Green's primary comic instinct is to aim for shock value — as in Pineapple Express the action in Your Highness is punctuated by cartoonish violence — which grows tedious toward the end credits. His efforts would have been better devoted to expanding Theroux's and Deschanel's roles — they are woefully underutilized — or giving McBride something funnier to say than "motherf*cker."
The Crusades were a series of religious wars in which the Christians tried to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered the Middle East in the 7th century. With the battle cry of "God wills it! " thousands of Europeans answered the call and were able to retake the fabled Holy City in the 11th century. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1186 between the Second and Third Crusades. A fragile peace prevails mostly through the efforts of Jerusalem's enlightened Christian king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the military restraint of the legendary Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But it's difficult to maintain the peace. There are extremists within the Christian brigades--known as the Knights Templar--who want to wipe every Muslim off the face of the Earth. On top of that King Baldwin's health is failing. Once he's gone war is sure to follow. If ever there was a need for a hero this is the time. Enter the young French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is in deep despair over the loss of his family. He joins the Crusades after the father he never knew Godfrey (Liam Neeson) comes back from Jerusalem and convinces him it's a quest worth fighting for. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son he also passes on that sacred knightly oath: to protect the helpless safeguard the peace and work toward harmony between religions and cultures so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth. No pressure or anything though.
Orlando Bloom carries his first major motion picture very well easily handling the chores of being such a gallant conscientious and morally upstanding knight. As Balian the Troy costar plays the gamut. He broods over his lost wife and child has father-son epiphanies upholds his knightly duties on a regular basis falls in love with a beautiful but troubled princess and finally bravely defends the Holy City from the encroaching Muslim army thus becoming a legend. Not bad for a day's work eh? There are even times especially toward the end when Balian is standing before the denizens of Jerusalem urging them to fight when you swear you can see a little of Bloom's The Lord of the Rings alter-elf Legolas creep in. The supporting cast also does an adequate job painting a picture of some trying times. Chief among them: Jeremy Irons as King Baldwin's right-hand man Tiberias; Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) as the evil leader of the Knights Templar; Massoud as the great warrior Saladin; and lovely Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Princess Sibylla King Baldwin's sister who captures our hero's heart but makes some bad choices with dire consequences.
Even if these sword-and-armor epics are all blending together you've got to give props to the directors who make them. These films are massive undertakings and Kingdom of
Heaven with the expert Ridley Scott at the helm is no exception. The Oscar-winning director of course has had his fair share of recreating history first with the classic Gladiator and then with the contemporary Black Hawk Down. But in recreating the Crusades Scott faces his toughest challenge to date and takes on the responsibility very seriously. He is painstakingly meticulous with details even as he is building a 12th-century Jerusalem or corralling 2 000 heavily costumed extras for the colossal climactic battle sequences. And it is always a good thing when a historical film can teach you something you may not have known like what the heck the Crusades were really all about. No Kingdom's biggest obstacle is timing. While it certainly has more substance than Alexander it is not nearly as intense and stirring as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the granddaddy of them all Braveheart. Too many of its ilk has come before and the concept has unfortunately worn thin.
Queen Latifah and Steve Martin's romantic jailbreak comedy Bringing Down the House locked up the box office this weekend with a cool $31.7 million* take--the third best ever March opening.
Bringing Down the House stole the No. 1 spot from this week's other new release, the war actioner Tears of the Sun, which debuted in second place with a spartan $17.2 million.
After holding on to the No. 2 spot for two weeks in a row, the laffer Old School dropped a notch to third place with a still chugging $9.2 million. Best Picture Oscar nominee Chicago gained some ground, placing fourth with a tuneful $6.9 million, while the romantic comedy How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days continued its Top Five reign with a still gallant $6.7 million.
THE TOP TEN
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated comedy Bringing Down the House won the box office crown in its debut weekend with an ESTIMATED $31.7 million at 2,801 theaters. Its $11,317 per theater average was the highest of this week's Top 10 grossing films.
In the film, a convict from the 'hood asks an uptight lawyer to help her clear her name. When he refuses, however, she turns his perfectly ordered life upside down.
Directed by Adam Shankman, it stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.
Sony Pictures' R rated war actioner Tears of the Sun premiered in second place with an ESTIMATED $ 17.2 million at 2,973 theaters ($5,785 per theater).
The film revolves round a Navy SEAL lieutenant and his elite band of soldiers, who are dispatched to retrieve an American doctor from Nigeria after the country's democratic government collapses.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it stars Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci.
DreamWork's R rated buddy comedy Old School fell a notch to No. 3 in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $9.2 million (-34%) at 2,707 theaters (-35 theaters). Its cume is approximately 50.8 million.
Directed by Todd Phillips, it stars Luke Wilson, Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
In its 11th week of release, Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago continued to expand and gained a spot, coming in fourth with a still strong ESTIMATED $6.9 million (-12%) at 2,600 theaters (+153 theaters, $2,672 per theater). Its cume is approximately $114.5 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 rated How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days dropped from fourth to fifth position in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-34%) at 2,897 theaters (-26 theaters), with a $2,330 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $86.9 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Last weekend's box office champ, Warner Bros.' R-rated martial arts actioner Cradle 2 the Grave, plummeted to sixth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $6.5 million (-60%) in 2,625 theaters (unchanged) with a $2,509 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $27 million.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, it stars DMX, Jet Li, Gabrielle Union, Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 live-action comic book adaptation Daredevil fell from third to seventh place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5.1 million (-54%) at 2,728 theaters (-456 theaters, $1,854 per theater). Its cume is approximately $91.4 million. The film could become the first movie this year to pass the $100 million mark.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, it stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Buena Vista's G rated animated feature The Jungle Book 2 fell two notches in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $4.2 million (-40%) at 2,553 theaters (-261 theaters, $1,645 per theater). Its cume is approximately $39.5 million.
Directed by Steven Trenbirth, it features the voices of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman, Bob Joles and Tony Jay.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated buddy actioner Shanghai Knights fell from seventh to ninth place in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $2.7 million (-46%) at 1,905 theaters (-610 theaters, $1,417 per theater). Its cume is approximately $54.7 million.
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
Rounding out the Top 10 is Universal's R rated drama The Life of David Gale, which fell two notches to eighth place in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $2.1 million (-54%) at 1,872 theaters (-131 theaters) with a $1,122 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $17.1 million.
Directed by Alan Parker, the film stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $95.4 million, up 10.4 percent from last week when they totaled $86.4 million.
The Top 12 were up 14.81 percent from last year when they totaled $83.1 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' PG-13 rated The Time Machine debuted at the top of the box office with $22.6 million at 22,944 theaters ($7,680 per theater); Paramount's R rated We Were Soldiers came in second with $14.2 million at 3,143 theaters ($4,521 per theater); and New Line's R rated All About the Benjamins debuted in third with $10 million at 2,399 theaters ($2,932 per theater).