Saturday, February 11, 2012

Safe House

Raise your hand if you thought Safe House was directed by Tony Scott. Its combination of urban mayhem, hyper editing, and the presence of a dour Denzel Washington recalls Man on Fire or The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but in fact Safe House is the U.S. debut of a Swedish director named Daniel Espinosa. Washington is on hand as Tobin Frost, a former CIA agent gone "rogue" who takes refuge at an American consulate in South Africa in order to escape a hit squad. Frost has some key bit of information squirreled away, but the contents of the microchip he injects into himself for safekeeping almost don't matter. Neither does the fact that a U.S. interrogator (Robert Patrick) and his team begins to torture Frost; the movie doesn't stop to consider legalities or America's place in the world because the safe house where Frost is being held gets attacked, and Frost is spared only thanks to the intervention of a low-level Agency "housekeeper" named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). The rest of the movie is a long chase with a series of feints. Where do Frost's loyalties lie, and does he view Matt as a captor or potential ally? The obvious question is the identity of the traitor; it has to be one of the CIA higher-ups (Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson) Espinosa keeps cutting to as they debate Weston's loyalty and haggle over blame. Safe House pauses to consider the costs of an agent's life. There's a moment of shared memories between Frost and a document forger (Ruben Blades) who seems to have found a level of domestic peace. Weston's girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) gets a sharp burst of anger when she learns the true identity of the man she knew as an NGO employee. Those scenes let the movie breathe, but of course the action is all. Espinosa stages the car chases and a surprising amount of close-in fighting with an energy perhaps drawn from working in locations that have been underrepresented in movies like this. Safe House is a February diversion, but it's an entertaining one thanks to the two leads. Washington gives Frost notes notes of desperation an surprising moments, while Reynolds is free of the smugness that so often knocks him down a peg or two for me. You'll forget about this movie in a month, but know that Tony Scott is thinking about how to up the ante.

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