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.
What do you call a bunch of Australians tossed down a hole? A good start. I kid of course – “a mediocre movie” is more like it. And that’s precisely what you get with Alister Grierson’s Sanctum a 3D thriller in which a crew of cave divers struggle to survive after a monsoon-driven flood pins them thousands of feet underground.
Sanctum is set in Papua New Guinea but was mostly shot in the sprawling caves of South Australia. The cast is dominated by local actors many of whom will prove unrecognizable to moviegoers residing above the equator – which frankly isn’t all that much of a hindrance since the lot of them will be killed off long before the closing credits roll.
The cast’s lone non-Aussie – and the film’s most familiar face – is Welshman Ioan Gruffudd who plays Carl a gratingly cocky American industrialist whose wealth funds the whole caving (the word “spelunking” is never used much to my chagrin) expedition and whose extreme-tourist bent compels him to come along for the ride. He also brings his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) whose strong-mindedness you just know is going to become a liability when the sh*t hits the fan.
The sh*t in the case of Sanctum is an apocalyptic storm that arrives days before it’s supposed to triggering an avalanche of boulders that effectively seals off all possible exits. With the water level rising and a near-zero chance of rescue the group’s hardened no-nonsense leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) decrees that their best hope of survival lies in finding an alternate means of escape via an unexplored stretch of tunnels thought to lead to the ocean.
The situation grows gradually more desperate and characters succumb one by one to the hazards of the deep in fairly predictable disaster-flick order. (The aging female is first to go followed by the ethnic guy etc.) Sanctum cycles through a series of grisly fatalities – including one delightful bit in which a shock of hair caught in a climbing apparatus results in an impromptu scalping – until finally the last man standing is Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) a moody 17-year-old who has heretofore spent most of the film acting out with childish spite toward his neglectful dad. Out of supplies exhausted but with his exquisite surfer-dude haircut thankfully still intact Josh must complete the remainder of the harrowing journey alone.
Director Grierson packs Sanctum with some truly breathtaking visuals. The underwater cinematography shot with 3D cameras Grierson spent six-plus years developing is particularly stunning. But the film’s script clearly didn’t receive as much care and attention as its cameras. The action is occasionally gripping but the story lacks suspense and its tone largely fails to evoke the gnawing claustrophobia that presumably festers in such a dark musty subterranean labyrinth. Moreover it’s littered with truly execrable dialogue made worse by ADR that sounds as if it were recorded in a cozy basement studio.
Executive producer James Cameron is featured prominently in Sanctum’s advertising campaign but the film itself bears scant evidence of his involvement save perhaps for the splendid underwater scenes. I half-suspect he viewed the project as a tool to develop and test his 3D technology in preparation for his amphibious Avatar sequel. He certainly didn’t use it to brush up on his storytelling skills.
Warner Loughlin voices various telephone roles in Buried and came to Reynolds' assistance in between takes when The Proposal star's confined space started to freak him out.
And now Reynolds insists he doesn't know what he'd have done without her.
He says, "I was enclosed in there and I had my moments of utter panic that were soothed in different ways. There were times when I couldn't get in and out of the coffin with any kind of ease so I just had to stay in there with 50, 60, 70 pounds of wood pressing against me, so I started to have a moment of panic.
"One woman was playing all the roles on the other end of the phone, so I had a microphone very close to my chest and she would hear a panic attack starting because she could hear my heart rate accelerating when we weren't shooting.
"She would talk to me about wide open spaces, meadows, trees and esoteric stuff that would just chill me out and allow me to keep doing the job. I'm a big guy, so I tend to lean a little bit more towards claustrophobia than most."
Buried stars Ryan Reynolds as Paul Conroy a contract truck driver in Iraq who much to his own surprise wakes up from within the confines of an old wooden coffin buried an indeterminate depth underground. He doesn't immediately know who has kidnapped him or what he can do to try and get out; all he knows is that the clock is ticking and unless he can reach the outside world he is going to suffer a horrible death.
By most measures of common sense Buried should not be as a whole the harrowing film it is. That's not because it's directed and written by relative newcomers Rodrigo Cortes and Chris Sparling respectively nor is it because Reynolds lacks the power to anchor a film all his own. It's because Buried is a 95-minute movie that takes place entirely from within the confines of a coffin. By all expectations a movie that never leaves a space that's barely big enough to fit a human being should quickly run out of steam.
So how does director Cortes turn a film that takes place in such a tortuously small setting into a full-blooded feature that satisfies its run time? He starts with Reynolds as his centerpiece. For years the actor has been cultivating his presence as a handsome and charming leading man but here the camera doesn't care one bit about selling tickets based on showing off Reynolds' physical features. It's all about Reynolds' ability to make an audience understand his thought process feel his fear and share his panic as to whether or not he will ever see daylight again.
And though Reynolds has proven more than capable of showcasing rapid explosions and suppressions of heartfelt emotions it doesn't hurt that director Cortes from a logistical standpoint never gives the audience any reason to doubt his star's pain. It flat out looks like Reynolds was buried alive and someone somehow snuck a camera in to film it. Obviously that's what a film called Buried should look like but in an age of filmmaking where technology separates actors from the harms their characters face it's exciting to see a film that completely removes the illusion of a safety barrier between the two.
The first 15 minutes alone will no doubt induce uncomfortable squirming and nervous flinching at the sight of Reynolds trying fruitlessly to do well anything from inside his pitiful tomb. The opening of Buried should become a cinematic reference point for how to make audience members suffer claustrophobia simply by watching someone else trapped within its clutches. Unfortunately the rest of the film isn't quite as consistently riveting as its stellar opening.
From a technical standpoint Cortes is ahead of the curve throughout the entire film. That's why it's regrettable that Sparling's script occasionally gets in the way of Cortes and Reynolds' disconcerting ability to make the audience go through everything Paul is going through. When it's just Paul desperately trying to perform simple tasks like reaching a cell phone on the other side of the coffin Buried is phenomenal. It's when Sparling's script runs out of interior threats to throw at the man that things begin to teeter on the precarious edge between unforgettable tension and reluctant melodrama.
Paul's situation is already dire enough as it is to trap the audience in the coffin with him. Between cell phone battery life and simple concerns like whether his lighter is burning too much oxygen there's more than sufficient motivation to feel awful for Paul. So when Sparling finds ways for the people on the other end of the phone to needlessly (and sometimes implausibly) rain on his already crappy parade even more it comes across as a little too forced and breaks the illusion that Reynolds and Cortes have so fantastically maintained throughout.
Even with a few scripting missteps however Buried consistently manages to recoup its confidence and pull the audience back into caring about the situation at hand. The film's ability to do so is simply further testament to the strengths of Cortes as a detail-oriented director (cinematography sound design and score all combine together in subtle yet highly effective ways) and Reynolds as considerably more than just a handsome leading man. It's refreshing to see him dominate a range of emotions this daunting and there's little doubt that Buried will later be remembered as both a landmark film for the actor and a benchmark exercise in isolationist horror movies.