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.
Dateline: 10 000 B.C. The day of the last hunt has arrived. Oh dear. If an ancient prophecy holds true a remote mountain tribe’s quiet existence is hours away from coming to a bloody end. Not that it matters to a hunting party comprised of mud-splattered Abercrombie & Fitch himbos--nothing’s going to come between them and a hot plate of woolly mammoth meat. But no sooner is dinner over than “four-legged demons” attack. Actually they’re just slave traders on horseback but they quickly make off with plenty of women and children including Evolet (Camilla Belle). This “girl with the blue eyes” just so happens to possess the tribe’s “promise of life”--whatever that is. Enter D'Leh (Steven Strait). Our would-be He-Man loves Evolet so he organizes a rescue mission with the help of tribe elder Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis). Their destination is a place unlike anything they have seen before (because they didn’t see Apocalypto): a city with pyramids built by slaves and ruled by a purported god the evil Almighty. First though our heroes must make it there alive--which is easier said than done when there are hungry (and poorly computer-generated) saber-toothed tigers on the prowl. Forget about Belle replacing Raquel Welch as the prehistoric playmate of your dreams. It’s my sad duty to report that are we denied the pleasure of seeing Belle strike some sexy poses in an animal-skin bikini straight out of One Million Years B.C. But it’s nice to know that even in the Mesolithic period our dreadlocked damsel in distress has access to the spa services needed for her to pass as the well-scrubbed face of a Vera Wang perfume campaign. Everyone else though needs a hosing down. Besides keeping herself clean and healthy Belle’s only other responsibility is to give the occasional hard stare that emphasizes Evolet’s piercing blue eyes which she does with aplomb. The Covenant’s Strait may have the beefcake physique of a warrior but he doesn’t possess any noble qualities. He’s more dolt than D’Leh natural born leader. Just listen to the sleepy Strait’s morale-boosting Independence Day-ish speech and you’re be inspired to fall on your own spear. Live Free or Die Hard’s Curtis can barely contain his embarrassment at having to fight at Strait’s side. 10 000 B.C. doesn’t boast a villain worthy of our hisses but Affiff Ben Nadra and Marco Khan at least project some menace as at-odds slave traders. “Only time can teach us what is truth and what is legend ” intones narrator Omar Sharif with all the pomposity of Seinfeld’s J. Peterman. Fine but 10 000 B.C. is hardly the stuff of legends. There are too many problems with this serious-minded but fantastical prehistoric romp to enjoy it on its own terms or as an unintentional exercise in pure camp. Forcing the cast to speak with grating generic European accents makes the inane dialogue harder on the ears. The plot borrows too liberally from Apocalypto. Even when Emmerich stops treading on Mel Gibson’s toes 10 000 B.C. also comes across as a de facto prequel to Stargate what with its antagonist being a pyramid-obsessed supreme being. You even brace yourself for the Almighty to reveal himself to be Jaye Davidson. All could be forgivable if Emmerich delivered on the action. He doesn’t. A woolly mammoth stampede proves to be inferior to similar scenes in Jurassic Park and King Kong. A phorusrhacid attack provokes laughter because it looks like our heroes are fleeing from a pissed-off Big Bird. The climatic revolt ends as soon as it begins. No one demands much from Emmerich. Just pure spectacle. So why does 10 000 B.C. feel no bigger than a natural history museum mini-diorama?
Towne’s film is a noble but ultimately flawed attempt to adapt author John Fante’s highly regarded 1930s novel (the screenwriter discovered it and befriended the author while researching Chinatown and spent over three decades trying to bring it to the screen). It tells the tale of wannabe writer and second generation Italian American Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) who comes to the sunny Sodom-by-the-Sea to seek fame and fortune by penning the Great American Novel and collides with a headstrong sharp-tongued Mexican waitress Camilla (Salma Hayek)--a far cry from the beautiful blonde of his romantic fantasies. But she too isn’t looking for an Italian--she longs to marry a WASP and shed her Latin identity. The two tangle--and become entangled--with each other as they try to make their dreams come true in the misnamed City of Angels. It’s a potent premise--a racially charged romance set against a vivid Day of the Locust-style backdrop--that gets off to a stylish start but quickly gets bogged down in a morass of too-familiar oh-so-soap opera sentiment. Looking perfectly fit for a fedora Colin Farrell attacks his role with an abundance of passion wit and verve and the strength of his performance carries the film through many of its rockier trails. As well Salma Hayek practically radiates sensuality AND a keen intelligence in one of most fully realized performances to date. The two strike some very palpable sparks--fireworks even--during both their amusing verbal sparring matches and their highly charged sex scenes (yes both her caliente curves and his bad boy beefcake are on full--and full frontal--display to strong effect). Both performers lift the film to heights it might otherwise not have achieved but are let down by the film’s lugubrious pacing and pat uninvolving third act. Idina Menzel (of Rent fame) pockets nearly every scene she’s in as an eccentric woman obsessed with Farrell’s character delivering a performance that deftly spins its initial quirky comic appeal on a dime into a more moving note of tragedy and sympathy. Towne’s abilities behind the camera--in films such as Tequila Sunrise and Without Limits--have often taken a back seat to his stellar reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest living screenwriters. Still his directorial gifts are considerable as he proves again in Ask the Dust. He adroitly visualizes the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles circa 1939 with the aid of a masterful set built in the unlikely locale of South Africa and his lengthy rehearsal process and trust of actors helped concoct great chemistry between Hayek and Farrell. Where he really trips up is in the editing: the film plays like a screenwriter’s full version if his own final draft. The lack of nips and tucks in the cutting room slows the pace and progression to a fault resulting in scenes that play too long and turgidly. After the too-slow march to the inevitable end you’ll feel like you’re the one who should be brushing the dust off as you leave the theater.
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.