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.
Oh where to begin the insanity? Let’s start with a serial killer breaking into two young women’s apartment killing one of them but getting scared off before he can finish off the other one. At the trial of Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) the possible serial killer testimony from celebrated forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) sends the guy to the gas chamber--even though the lone witness didn’t get a clear look and all the other evidence is circumstantial. Jump to nine years later when Gramm is still celebrated--mostly by the females in his life including a few of his college students (Alicia Witt Leelee Sobieski) the dean of the college (Deborah Kara Unger) and especially his loyal assistant (Amy Brenneman). But Gramm’s cushy life is turned upside down when a woman he knows is found murdered by what looks to be the same serial killer Gramm thought he put away. Did the wrong man get accused? Oh and Gramm also receives a phone call that he has 88 minutes to live. Bad day for Gramm. Bad movie-going experience for us all. Al buddy what were you thinking? At least the over-the-top Pacino plays it to the hilt as only he can. His requisite screaming scene for example has his Gramm trying to “get into the head” of Forster (played by McDonough with all the malevolence he can muster) by yelling all his dialogue at him so the convict will crack. Right. The real kicker is Gramm describing his little sister’s murder years ago his voice cracking with emotion. It doesn’t even come close to sincerity. Pacino is also supported by a bevy of recognizable actresses who probably took the job just to work with the actor but who shouldn’t count this one on their resumes. Witt is reduced to playing wide-eyed terror as she follows Pacino around on his quest to find out who’s threatening him while Sobieski mostly moons over the professor. The usually good Brenneman’s super-assistant delivers all of Gramm’s CRAZY requests with much calm and precision. But all these women seem to have some kind of ulterior motive so which one has it in for the good doctor? I won’t tell. Director Jon Avnet whose best known for helming Fried Green Tomatoes and Red Corner does a fair enough job. There are enough jumps and starts to at the very least keep the action going. No truly the most laughable part of the film is the script by Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious). From the moment Gramm gets the threatening phone call to how the killer can find him anywhere anytime with any communication device--none of it makes sense. You can’t even suspend disbelief just for a moment. And the dialogue? Wow. Thompson must have pilfered from all the bad thriller/cop/serial killer movies ever made. Rumor has it 88 Minutes was slated to go directly to DVD but somehow got the green light for a theatrical release. Let’s hope Al Pacino didn’t push for it--that would just be sad.
Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank) doesn’t know how lucky she has it. She’s smart beautiful and married to Gerry (Gerald Butler) a passionate funny and impetuous Irishman who loves her with every breath in his body. But when that breath runs out--Gerry dies unexpectedly from an illness--Holly’s luck runs out. Barely coping her salvation arrives in the form of letters from Gerry that come to Holly in unexpected ways--letters he wrote to her before he died to help her get through the pain and move on with her life and letters that always end with “P.S. I Love You.” A saint huh? Holly’s mother (Kathy Bates) and best friends Sharon (Gina Gershon) and Denise (Lisa Kudrow) begin to worry Gerry’s letters are keeping Holly tied to the past but in fact each letter pushes Holly on a journey of rediscovery and to show her how a love so strong can turn the finality of death into new beginning for life. Tissues please! Swank will be damned if she pigeonholes herself into always playing serious women who don’t wear makeup. P.S. I Love You is her stab at romantic dramedy and while the genre may not suit her best the Oscar-winning actress still has fun playing a spirited woman who wears designer clothes cute hats and gets to make out with a strapping Irish hunk. Actually Swank gets to bed TWO strapping Irish hunks in P.S. I Love You: The first is the yummy Butler of course and the other is Gerry’s old bandmate William played by American Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who’ll be seen in the upcoming romantic comedy The Accidental Husband with Uma Thurman). Lucky girl. Butler however is the one the ladies will sigh over the most. Having already given a powerhouse performance this year as the Spartan king in 300 the Scottish actor turns the tables to show his soft underbelly as the adorably romantic and fun-lovin’ Gerry. The abs still rock though. One can easily see why Holly is such a mess after he dies. Gershon and Kudrow add some genuineness as Holly’s friends (someone please find a Kudrow a TV show) as does Bates as Holly’s hardened mother. Harry Connick Jr. however seems out of place as Holly’s would-be suitor. She just needs to stick with the Irish guys. Hilary Swank teams up with her Freedom Writers director Richard LaGravenese once again for P.S. I Love You and it’s clear they have a symbiotic relationship. Swank probably likes the way LaGravenese accentuates her best features turning her into a glam leading lady while LaGravenese obviously enjoys gazing at her through his camera lens. Unfortunately the two really haven’t found the best material. Freedom Writers is the mother of all teacher-gets-students-motivated retreads while P.S. I Love You--based on a novel by Cecelia Ahern and adapted by LaGravenese and Steven Rogers--is just pure fluff with very little substance behind it. Not that the film won't inspire some romantic feelings or work up tears but its only real strengths are: 1) the players who somehow rise about the triteness of it all especially Butler and 2) the gorgeous landscapes of Ireland which should send any woman in her right mind straight to the Emerald Isles to find her perfect man. Seriously ladies book your trips NOW.