Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On DVD: "Safe House"

Denzel Washington has chosen an odd specialty at this point in his career, a juncture at which he can basically do anything. He still steers clear of comedy, he hasn’t done a romance in over a decade, and his dramas are fewer and farther between. What he’s particularly interested in, it seems, is doing very quiet performances in very loud movies. He primarily appears in action films (most of them directed by Tony Scott), and seems to take pleasure in seeing how defiantly he can underplay them. He doesn’t do all that many great movies anymore—but he’s almost always great in them, and that’s a fair assessment of his most recent effort, Safe House.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, a peerless CIA man who went “off the reservation” a decade earlier. He now has no allegiances and is seemingly incapable of being tracked by the government, who are after him for treason, which is why it’s so strange that he marches into the American consulate in Capetown and gives himself up. Before he is extradited, he will be held at a nearby safe house, where the “housekeeper” is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a young buck looking for action. He gets some.

Reynolds is a decent actor, but way overmatched here—so it’s a good thing that the dynamic of Washington’s dominance works for the narrative. Frost is smarter, stronger, tougher, and meaner than Weston, and thankfully, the younger man never really gets the better of him, even when they close in on the inevitable “begrudging respect” dénouement.

That may sound like a spoiler, but trust me, Safe House is not the kind of movie you’re watching for surprising turns and innovative storytelling. It’s an actor’s show, with Denzel doing his soft-spoken cool-but-edgy guy routine, and Reynolds playing the naïve newbie who learns to think on his feet. It’s mostly a movie assembled out of spare parts; their relationship is familiar from Washington’s own Training Day (and a hundred other titles), the CIA command center stuff is straight out of the Bourne series, and the half-hearted romance could be excised entirely (though it provides Reynolds his best pure acting scene in the picture).

Supporting performances are mixed. Casting the likes of Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, and Brendan Gleeson as the CIA muckety-mucks is the only way those characters have any inner life at all, though this viewer is getting awfully tired of seeing Farmiga in all these boring empty suit roles. But Reuben Blades has one mellow, marvelous scene, and Liam Cunningham is memorable in his brief appearance as well. Director Daniel Espinosa has some skill as a visceral filmmaker; his staging of a water-boarding scene is harrowing, his car chases have a hard, nervous energy, and though the hand-to-hand scenes OD on the handheld, they’ve got a scrappy, raw, bruising intensity.

There’s little in Safe House that you haven’t seen before, from the young turk/wise elder byplay to the big reveal that you can see a mile off, in hunter’s orange. But Washington (as always) impresses, Reynolds holds its own, and director Espinoza has a good eye for action. They’re not reinventing the wheel here, but Safe House is entertaining enough.

"Safe House" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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