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.
The National Guard is called out for a routine desert exercise in Yuma Flats where nuclear experiments once took place. The team of young and often naïve recruits set out in the heat and they all have nicknames such as Crank (Jacob Vargas) Stump (Ben Crowley) Spitter (Eric Edelstein) Mickey (Reshad Strik)—and the resident hunk Napoleon (Michael McMillian). There are some chick soldiers too including Amber (Jessica Stroup) and Missy (Daniella Alonso). When they run into traps among the rocks and rattlesnakes they find the dregs of humanity who have been left there after the nuclear experiments. The mutant family living in the buildings left standing from the testing as well as the caves under the ground also have their own share of nicknames: Hades (Michael Bailey Smith) Stabber (Tyrell Kemlo) Letch (Jason Oettle) Grabber (Gaspar Szabo) and Chameleon (Derek Mears). Meanwhile roughshod Sgt. Millstone (Flex Alexander) leads the battle against them. Sometimes the actors in these horror flicks are only judged by how well they scream and die—and a few of these soldiers have some good lungs. The problem is the vain attempts the film makes in trying to create characters the audience care about because frankly we don't no matter how many glimpses of life at home or pictures saved on the cell phone. The first victim in the beginning seems a sympathetic captive but is subjected to a brutal rape and then a quick and graphic decapitation which is highly unnecessary. The monster family is a bit more evil and even somewhat familiar (Michael Bailey Smith was in last year's The Hills Have Eyes). Images of dead soldiers even though portrayed in an unrealistic way may seem too real with the recent news of the day and the family-in-peril anxiety of the first classic is lost in this sequel. Horror guru Wes Craven always said he hated the 1985 sequel he did to his 1977 classic which continued on with the Carter family and their mutant woes so this time—co-writing with his son Jonathan Craven—he went a different way. Unfortunately it still doesn’t work as well. Hills Have Eyes 2 lacks the creativity French director Alexandre Aja instilled in last year’s scare fest which truly highlighted how the 1950s nuclear testing in the desert could have created these mutant people. This time we have director Martin Weisz who is known more for his music videos. Maybe that's why the scenes come across too quick too choppy and too in your face. The requisite amount of gore is going to keep some sickos in the audience happy but it's not the creative stuff we've seen before from this team.