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.
Now it’s Milo’s (Zlatko Buric) turn the big bad drug dealer from the original Pusher. It begins with him going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He says he wants to get clean so he can have a better relationship with his daughter Milena (Marinela Dekic). In the next scene Milo goes back to scoring drugs but he’s also planning Milena’s birthday party. As the big night nears Milo finds out that his latest score was ecstasy not heroin but sorting that out doesn’t seem so much of a priority to him. Milo gets busy cooking for his family gathering while his underlings try to sort out the X/dope mess. Milena’s got her own interests too and she’s not afraid of her badass father. The twist of the family story is a nice change-up for the Pusher series but it still delves into the violent world of drugs and qualifies as a worthy entry to the franchise. Buric plays a much older Milo here than he did in the first Pusher. With a deep sorry mumble he’s going through the motions of older age. He gets exasperated with his crew for pestering him while he’s trying to attend to his family and he seems like a normal dad in that way. Family fights are the same normal blow ups with quick forgiveness that happen at any Thanksgiving day gathering. As the night wears on Buric shows Milo’s growing intensity. His silent brooding means he is evaluating his distractions but really remains calm in even the worst of drug mishaps. It’s way cooler than the panicked street hoods of the first two Pushers. Now you can watch a real pro at work. As Milena Dekick doesn’t have too much personality. Is she spoiled? We get hints of that. Is she just controlling? Probably and with good reason living in that family. The other crew members are just generic criminals. Focusing on the family and Milo’s attempted recovery from addiction is a good twist. All the street dealing was getting old especially in Pusher II. This seems like a more adult Pusher dealing with real issues everyone has in some way--work family etc. It’s just most people aren’t thugs. Like a My Big Fat European Pusher this third one creates more excitement around the party preparations than the crime world. Still the movie is a Pusher so you’re waiting for the crime story to pop back in. The violence is plenty brutal but it’s torture not action. There’s no suspense because this is Milo the man in charge. It really makes one wish they’d just combined all three perspectives into one massive expose rather than dragging it out through three films.
Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) the wild boyfriend of the original Pusher is the star of this sequel. Back in prison he gets some advice about facing fears and creating an image of himself but it doesn’t work out so well; he gets his ass kicked. After the opening titles Tonny is out in the real world again. He gets some work at his father (Leif Sylvester)’s shady chop shop garage but he can’t even do that right. Tonny’s luck isn’t much better with the ladies. Even prostitutes can’t get him off. Soon Tonny finds out that his ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Anne Sorensen) has had a child. There’s more stealing than dealing in Pusher II but drugs are always there. Along the way Tonny tries taking care of the baby. Bringing the tot along to a wedding/bachelor party while mom is snorting in the bathroom speaks volumes to what kind of parents these are. It hardly feels like a continuing story but more a spin-off with a supporting character. Mikkelsen makes Tonny look like a hopeless soul. He’s sad the whole time but in a pathetic way. He’s not expressing his feelings to anyone not chasing a better life just going through the same old motions. It looks like he’s about to weep but even that would take more effort than Tonny can muster. The women look lovely like exotic foreign models but they act like vulgar riff raff. Sorensen never makes you sympathize with her stranded as a single mother. Her friend played by Maria Erwolter seems to have a bit more hope for a happy life with a wedding but she deteriorates into the druggie cycle like the others. Sylvester plays dad as the most normal relatable character in the film. He may be a criminal but he’s still just a guy disappointed and frustrated with his loser son. Nicolas Winding Refn is still shooting his Pusher movies with handheld cameras so the shot is always bouncing around the action. Action could just mean people sitting around snorting up or whining because there is far less physical action in Pusher II. Near the beginning a botched car robbery leads to a big realistic car crash which looks like a random burst of violence coming out of nowhere to surprise the audience. Any other carnage is really just the protagonists attacking themselves. One of their tricks to stall for time is to pretend they’ve been shot or robbed so they shoot each other and trash their own place. Any mild tension created by the original Pusher’s selected acts of violence is lost. Maybe something was lost in translation. The beginning theme about overcoming fear and creating one’s own public myth never pays off. What was the point that Tonny didn’t do either? That he remained a pathetic loser? This could very well be the message of these downer films. Pusher II barely feels like a sequel.