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.
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.
September 07, 2001 1:09pm EST
Shanté has everything going for her: she's smart successful and sexy an advertising exec who is so well versed in the field of romance that her girlfriends rely on her to dispense relationship advice on a regular basis hanging on her every word. Shanté however is in for a big surprise when she finds out her equally successful lawyer boyfriend Keith (Morris Chestnut) is cheating on her with her archrival Conny (Gabrielle Union). Rather than confront him about his two-timing ways she decides to put into effect her "Ten Day Plan" (an even dumber variation of "The Rules") intent on getting her man back at her side where she thinks he belongs. The plan involves childish games like not returning his phone calls and dating other men in plain view. She painfully explains these steps one by one looking directly into the camera. Keith on the other hand takes advice from his best friend Tony (Anthony Anderson) and plays the game right back. With scheming like this their relationship just has to work out.
The ensemble in this film is not a bad one; the members are simply victims of their own bad judgement for choosing to star in this stereotypical monstrosity. As Shanté Fox (Kingdom Come Set It Off) is reduced to playing a character who is supposed to be well educated but constantly spews out words like "ho'" and "hoochie." Let's hope there are better roles ahead for her--perhaps in her next project the basketball comedy Juwana Man? As sidekicks Anderson (Romeo Must Die) and Mo'nique (UPN's The Parkers) actually provide a lot more laughs and entertainment than do Fox and Chestnut (The Brothers). As Keith Chestnut comes across as a superficial player devoid of any meaningful qualities. He's too slick and sleazy. It's sad to see Chestnut fall so far from his role as Ricky Baker in John Singleton's Boyz 'N the Hood to this. Surprisingly Bobby Brown makes a funny cameo appearance as a buck-toothed makeover candidate.
Written and directed by Mark Brown (screenwriter How to be a Player HBO's Quincy's Jook Joint) Two Can Play That Game offers nothing fresh or new to the whiny relationship genre. In fact this film seems more like a lesser version of Waiting to Exhale or a really long episode of UPN's Girlfriends. For someone who supposedly has it so together Shanté's character comes across as dependent and desperate. Why doesn't she just dump her suave dallying beau? While right-at-the-camera monologues may work for Frankie Muniz in Malcolm in the Middle they are just plain irritating here. Not helping is the entire unoriginal girls vs. boys bantering or battle-of-the-sexes theme. To make matters worse the film is also perversely riddled with product placements like Coca-Cola and Miller Genuine Draft. The moral of the film seems to be that getting an unfaithful man to the later is some sort of just reward.