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.
Anyone who thought Disturbia could be the name of a family bonding movie could get a false sense of security in the opening scene. Kale (Shia LaBeouf) has a sweet fishing trip with his supportive dad but an automobile accident on the way home costs Dad his life and turns Kale into a brooding moping mess. A fight with his teacher lands him under house arrest for the summer with nothing to do but watch the neighbors from his window. A pretty new girl (Sarah Roemer) provides good scenery but across the street something more disturbing is going on. Neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse) seems to have a lot in common with a serial killer recently on the news but the ankle bracelet limits Kale's investigation. The ankle bracelet creates a false illusion of mobility but crossing the barrier only makes things harder. This may all sound familiar but Disturbia gives a fresh take on voyeurism. You might not expect a thriller like Disturbia to showcase great performances but it is a great vehicle for Shia LaBeouf to show his talent. He plays every moment against the standard conventions. His sullen kid is totally sympathetic. He's not just looking for attention but really trying to cope with a great loss. You actually want him to hit the asshole teacher for presuming to know what's up. Then while home his love struck voyeur is not just some horny kid. He seems moved by the vision not just the body. Then lastly as an action hero LaBeouf is truly desperate not just trying to be a badass. The others fill more traditional roles. Morse does his now familiar bad guy thing and is far more interesting as the friendly neighbor than when he's just going bonkers. Aaron Yoo as Kale’s goofy sidekick tries too hard to be wacky and clueless. Roemer on the other hand is a self-assured sexpot though a little too wise to her seductive wiles. Carrie-Anne Moss does the tough-love mom thing well. In fact she really hasn't repeated herself in her whole career. But ultimately it’s LaBeouf's show. With the whole movie seen through his perspective he creates a well-rounded guide through the sometimes far-fetched adventure. Director DJ Caruso (Two for the Money) knows all the classic tricks of suspense to keep audiences jumping and comes up with a few new ones of his own. The pacing is breakneck. To begin with the auto accident is staged beautifully. It is a realistic portrayal of the dangers caused by speed demon SUVs yet never gratuitous in communicating the horrific tragedy. Having the villain show up under innocuous pretenses also keeps the audience on their toes. But the house arrest hook is the best device of all. It can be a barrier as Kale stretches the limits of his mobility. Or it can be the edge of safety as Kale struggles to signal for help. Of course modern technology to spy on the neighbors is also employed to full effect. The film's tight storytelling packs it all into 95 minutes with no down time. Fans of this genre won't be disappointed