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.
From Paris With Love is a volatile hybrid half Hong Kong action flick half American spy thriller fused together in the Dr. Moreau-like laboratory of French filmmakers Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) and Pierre Morel (Taken). As a result of the violent process some parts emerge oddly distorted: Bruce Willis becomes John Travolta Matt Damon becomes Jonathan Rhys Meyers believability becomes an afterthought and plotting becomes irrelevant.
Made up like Ming the Merciless and channeling the hep-cat spirit of Vincent Vega Travolta stars as CIA Agent Charlie Wax a brusque trigger-happy bundle of Yankee hubris summoned to Paris to prevent a potential terrorist plot on a U.N. peace conference. Rhys Meyers plays James Reese an uptight entry-level operative tasked with ferrying Wax around the city to gather the intelligence needed to thwart the conspiracy.
Predictably the two agents quickly settle into the standard buddy cop relationship: Button-down rookie Reese is appalled by coke-snorting hooker-banging Wax’s unorthodox tactics which usually land them in the middle of one huge stunningly choreographed shootout or another; Wax in turn belittles his young sidekick’s naivety and stubborn adherence to protocol.
At times Travolta’s action-hero routine borders on embarrassing — like watching your grandmother try to rap — but his exaggerated bravado is not entirely without its charms. He’s by far the most enjoyable part of the movie skipping merrily through the bullet-strewn Parisian underground spewing politically incorrect aphorisms in between explosions reveling in his role as the obnoxious American. Virtually every line he delivers earns laughs — and often on purpose.
If only he had a more capable sparring partner than Rhys Meyers whose range From Paris With Love sadly reveals extends little beyond his petulant amorous act as young Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors. As much as Travolta enlivens the action the unutterably bland Rhys Meyers deflates it — and he gets the lion’s share of the screen time unfortunately.
Director Morel who cut his teeth as a cinematographer on such kinetic action fare as The Transporter does some virtuoso work with the camera incorporating everyday locales into his exquisitely frenzied set pieces. Dinner at a nondescript Chinese restaurant ends in a massive gunfight; an intimate dinner party launches an extended chase; a routine brothel visit gives way to ... another massive gunfight.
If only he'd put as much care into his casting decisions. After each of From Paris With Love’s violent skirmishes when Reese questions why things went so suddenly — and disastrously — awry Wax angrily shouts “Don’t you get it yet?” to his hopelessly obtuse partner. At times I think Travolta is actually pleading with his fellow castmember to wake up get his act together and stop ruining the movie. It's a doomed effort.