Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shotgun Aesthetic Fueled Entropy - "Safe House" Review

Searching for a word to describe the movie Safe House is one of those tasks that has me questioning my own skills as a film critic. The only equivalent to this task that I can think of relates back to the moment in Return of the Jedi where Chewbacca discovers a conveniently placed carcass of a giant animal only to find out that it is an obvious trap. To call Safe House a "safe" film seems almost too easy, if not incredibly lazy, but despite the almost obvious trap it is exactly the phrase that keeps coming to mind. So for the sake of forgoing any credibility at the expense of an easy tag line, here goes nothing.

Safe House is a safe choice at the cinema; nothing more, nothing less.

That's not to say that there isn't anything to say about the central performances that fuel director Daniel Espinosa's Safe House, there is, but its all muddied by the very same genre conventions that help to give the film a recognizable clarity. In Safe House this needed clarity is like an oasis in the middle of a vast desert created by hyperactive editing and punch-and-grab close-ups that dominate much of the film's visuals.

Yet at the same time Safe House still works as an exciting piece of standard popcorn entertainment. Most of this can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the ever-reliable Denzel Washington, an actor who desperately needs some better scripts, as the ambiguously villainous Tobin Frost. Frost, a former CIA agent gone rogue, finds himself in a bind as a mysterious force thwarts an early attempt of his to sell US intelligence and is now in full pursuit of his death. The only serviceable answer to his dilemma is to quickly turn himself into the South African embassy and get himself thrown into a local safe house to await interrogation.

This lands him with Ryan Reynolds' Matt Weston, a low-level CIA operative who has occupied an almost inactive safe house for the past eleven months. When that same mysterious force breaks into the safe house it is up to Weston to get Frost to safety all while maintaining his custody of him, complicated by the fact that Frost designed all of the mechanisms that Weston slavishly follows.

It is fun to see how Weston responds to this complicated situation, especially while under some particularly extreme circumstances that test his ability to react and reassess his position and beliefs in the very organization he represents. However, early on the film abandons this somewhat interesting character dynamic for a far more conventional spy tale that is easy to predict, almost comically so.

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington's rapid-fire interplay keeps the film moving but even they can't make the action in Safe House engaging. It is unfortunate for Safe House that it has to follow the release of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Haywire, two films that clearly demonstrate the value of clarity and geography in action. Safe House instead opts for a shotgun aesthetic, spraying a variety of close-up shots in quick blasts and never truly establishing or relishing in its action.

Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol utilized this kind of filmmaking as well in a form of well-trained visual kung fu. Each close-up was the final punch in the gut needed to cap off a series of well-constructed and timed attacks. In Safe House, Espinosa attempts to channel the messy and chaotic cinematic techniques of Tony Scott and ends up with a barrage of geographically confusing action set-pieces. Instead of timing his punches, he flings his fists wildly with each close-up acting as if it was that final well-timed punch. Eventually this bludgeons the viewers into a state of submission, observing the action and never truly feeling or sensing it.

Safe House moves at a brisk enough pace to remain entertaining while it rides safely on the back of its talented and charismatic stars. The plot thrives on a familiarity that is both welcoming and yet never truly engaging. With a stronger focus on clarity over inertia, Safe House could have been a generic yet strong action film instead of just a mediocre exercise in genre convention.

2.5 / 4 Reels
2.5 / 4 Reels


1 comment:

  1. It’s a serviceable thriller that should satisfy those late winter cravings from action fans who haven’t seen enough bullets and fists flying onscreen. Nothing special but Reynolds and Washington make it better than it has any right to be. Good review.