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.
A salty skipper sets sail with his motley crew on a three-hour tour ... oops actually on a commercial fishing expedition as storms collide to give the Andrea Gail and crew the cruise of their lives. Ten-story waves and a crumbling ocean cruiser threaten to cut those lives tragically short in this Weather-Channel-on-steroids disaster flick. Unfortunately "The Perfect Storm" starts with a drizzle dampened by cheesy subplots but strap yourself in because this film rocks when the waves get rolling.
Can we end the debate about George Clooney having what it takes to be a movie star right here? After kicking butt in "Out of Sight" and "Three Kings " the former "E.R." stud has amply proven himself. He's every bit the leading man here as a fisherman who's in over his head (literally). To say that Mark Wahlberg plays Gilligan to Clooney's skipper wouldn't be quite fair; he completely sheds his Calvin Klein-clad image as a seaman who's love of swordfishing could cost him his girl and his life. But beware: "Storm" is no "Titanic" disaster-glam here. Clooney and Wahlberg are seriously shaggy and grungy for the entire 2+ hours.
Wolfgang Petersen mercifully avoids the silliness of recent disaster spectacles such as "Twister" and "Volcano " instead attempting to tell this true story with dignity. He flounders with the maudlin "Men Who Fish Too Much and the Women Who Love Them" backstory but redeems himself with ocean storms so sensational you won't be able to cancel your Carnival Cruise quickly enough.
Peterson gives us glimpses of the boats deeper into the storm than the Andrea Gail showing us what's in store for our heroes and building a near-unbearable level of tension.