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.
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