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.
Nearly 30 years after an infectious plague ravaged Scotland and forced the closing of the nation’s borders the plague recurs in London--prompting the government to send a crack team of commandos into Scotland to locate and retrieve the cure if indeed there is one. Of course it’s not as simple as all that. The hordes of crazed and in some cases cannibalistic survivors of the plague are more than willing to give a (very) warm welcome to these interlopers led by the foxy and fierce Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra). Meanwhile back in Merrye Olde England the virus is continuing to spread but some of the powers-that-be don’t seem altogether concerned about that being more preoccupied with protecting their image sullied as it already is. In short it’s every man and woman for himself and herself--survival of the fittest 21st-century style. It’s also derivative and not necessarily in a negative way of such sci-fi classics as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy--replete with appropriate nods and in-jokes from Marshall who clearly has a great respect and affection for those who came before. Sigourney Weaver may not lose any sleep but Milla Jovovich might. As the one-eyed two-fisted ferociously fit action heroine Eden Sinclair Mitra stakes her claim to become the next cult heroine and there’s plenty of room left here to accommodate Eden’s potential future adventures. It’s always nice having Bob Hoskins around even if only for an extended cameo appearance as Eden’s down-to-earth boss Bill Nelson. Hoskins has played some heavies in his time but here he’s one of the good guys. Alexander Siddig no stranger to science-fiction given his Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stint plays the (rightly) worried Prime Minister and the ever-scowling David O'Hara plays his ruthless aide-de-camp amusingly and ironically named Canaris (World War II buffs will get the reference) who really is the power behind the throne. Adrian Lester Nora-Jane Noone Darren Morfitt and reliable Sean Pertwee play members of Eden’s assault team--shades of James Cameron’s Aliens--although few of them are in one piece by the end credits. Such are the perils of being an actor in this sort of film. Another “old-school” favorite Malcolm McDowell provides expository narration (a lot of it) and his own brand of tasty British ham (sliced just right) to his role of the scientist Kane who has forsaken science--and society--for a more medieval motif in a world gone wild. Like Hoskins McDowell hasn’t much time onscreen but there’s something pleasing about having him here. This is a film that favors style over substance but there are opportunities for the actors to strut their stuff in spirited fashion. As bruised bloodied or beheaded as the actors get they all seem to be having fun.
Without question Neil Marshall is one of the fast-rising talents in the fantasy genre--a genre he has clearly studied well. He brings a keen insight and manages to “borrow” elements and inspiration from other films in a way that doesn’t insult those films doesn’t diminish his own work and--more importantly--doesn’t insult the audience some of whom will surely recognize those inspirations and nods (Doomsday is filled with them). This is however one of the more cold-blooded efforts of Marshall’s young career. It’s about an inhumane future and the film is suffused with that emotional resonance--or lack thereof. The humor such as it is is blunt and bloody and the irony no less smoothly rendered. Nevertheless this promises slam-bang action and it certainly delivers. In an era where so many horror and science-fiction films are cut to achieve a PG-13 rating often to the detriment of the end result Doomsday is bloody proud to go for that R rating!
Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) once a champion thoroughbred trainer and now a mild-mannered Kentucky farmer rescues an abandoned baby zebra and takes him home to his young daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere). Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz) as the adoring Channing calls him grows up on the farm with its misfit troupe of barnyard residents. They include the cantankerous but wise Tucker (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) a Shetland pony; Franny (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) a motherly old goat who keeps the farm in line; Goose (voiced by Joe Pantoliano) a skittish hit pelican who's hiding out from Jersey thugs after taking out the wrong bird; and Buzz (voiced by Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (voiced by David Spade) two horseflies with attitude--and an affinity for poop. But Stripes isn't cut out for farm life. Instead he has his sights set on the neighboring racetrack with hopes of running in the race himself--even if he isn't exactly a horse. With a little help from his human and farm animal friends he finally gets his chance. And loses! Oh I'm just kidding.
Although the human actors do an adequate job maintaining the core emotional element of the film especially the sweet-cheeked Panettiere (Raising Helen) it's the animal characters that keep Racing Stripes entertaining. Muniz is earnest enough as the enthusiastic Stripes while the sugary Mandy Moore voices his love interest Sandy a local show jumper horse. Veterans Hoffman who finds his inner horse as the crabby Tucker and Goldberg who does the maternal goat thing very well both handle their animal chores with aplomb. The ever-country hick Jeff Foxworthy and the lackadaisical Snoop Dogg also make vocal appearances as a none-too-bright rooster (are there any other kind?) and lazy bloodhound respectively. But it's Joey Pants as Goose the incompetent gangster pelican on the lam and Spade and Harvey as the quippy espresso-lovin' dung-wallowing horseflies who steal the show.
They always say its hardest to work with animals and children so director Frederik Du Chau (Quest for Camelot) really had his work cut out for him working with real zebras something which has never really been attempted before because of the animal's flighty temperament. Apparently a zebra's nature is rooted in a fight-or-flight response stemming from the fact they are chased by predators in the wild. Makes sense but training them to race around a track? Sounds like a nightmare shoot. Plus Stripes was played by no less than eight different "adolescent" zebras. Yikes. Du Chau pulls it off however. You're sitting there with the best of them cheering our hero on as he runs his big race oblivious to how they made it all happen. Overall it's just too bad that unlike its cousin Babe Racing Stripes has to go for the same tired and cheesy formula of an underdog proving himself rather than creating a tender story of a zebra making his way on a Kentucky horse farm.
Don't expect too many happy moments in Beyond Borders. Even though it follows a rather tepid romance the movie is more a travelogue of third-world horrors than anything else. Separated into three time periods the film begins in 1984 when newly married socialite Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie) first sees renegade doctor Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) at a London event delivering a fiery plea on behalf of starving children in Ethiopia. His intense commitment stirs Sarah's soul--so much so that she drops everything to take food and supplies to the dusty drought-ridden area herself. In Ethiopia she meets the unorthodox doctor face to face and witnesses the determination that he and his non-governmental organization (NGO) in saving lives. Sarah and Nick make a connection but Nick is too involved in his work to act on it and she is married after all (sigh). Four years later Sarah's marriage has turned sour but she now has a son and a life's passion working for the United Nations refugee agency. When the opportunity arises to see Nick again Sarah travels to Cambodia at the height of country's bloody civil war with a shipment of medical supplies. Amidst life-threatening situations she and Nick consummate their feelings for one another at last. But alas Nick is aware his devotion to his work hampers his capacity for love and he leaves her again (heavy sigh). The final segment takes place five years later when Sarah sets out on a quest to rescue Nick who has been captured in war-torn Chechnya. Will Sarah be able to save him so they can finally be reunited? Remember there are no happy moments in this film.
After reading the script for Beyond Borders which was filmed in 2001 Angelina Jolie began her real-life UN efforts so in a way Jolie's fictional alter ego reflects the Oscar-winning actress' real life. As Sarah learns about third-world strife she decides to dedicate her life to helping others through the United Nations as did Jolie who became a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001 a role she has extended for two more years. In Beyond Borders whether Sarah is nursing a child near death from starvation or standing up to a corrupt Cambodian general it's empowering to see Jolie the humanitarian pouring out her true feelings on screen. Owen (Gosford Park) does a more than believable job as the hard-bitten Nick who plays the character full of fury and grace as he is willing even to sell his soul to the devil--in this case a CIA operative who uses Nick to transport anything from secret documents to guns to the troubled areas in exchange for money to fund the NGO's efforts. Yet the film's main flaw lies in the lack of chemistry between Nick and Sarah. Nick is the smarter of the two--he knows his one true love is his work. Sarah is just too besotted to realize their affair--and her character arc--is doomed from the start.
Director Martin Campbell knows how to create spectacular vistas having directed such scenery-heavy films such as Vertical Limit and GoldenEye. From London's gray skies to Ethiopia's orange desert Cambodia's lush greenery to Chechnya's stark white winter Campbell's film is a visually stimulating treat. By far the most moving and alarming scenes take place in Ethiopia which was filmed on location in Africa's Namib desert. Seeing the emaciated (albeit mostly CGI) bodies of the dead and dying in the choking desert is enough to move anyone into humanitarian action. Be that as it may Borders should stop for a moment and give more history on the conflicts brewing in each beautiful yet troubled region--particularly by the time we get to Chechnya (actually Quebec). Rather than give any background on the region's raging civil war it simply shows bombed-out buildings and shooting in the streets and follows Sarah into the snowy woods on the search for Nick. While the other parts of Beyond Borders inspire your spirit this last part focuses solely on the love story and frankly it's just not as interesting