Tuesday 12 May 2015

Movie Review: Safe House (2012)

A fast-paced action thriller with substantial star power, Safe House does most things right but contributes little that is new to the Bourne-inspired ex-agent-on-the-run sub-genre.

In Cape Town, South Africa, inexperienced CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) has little to do as the keeper for a seldom-used safe house, and keeps his real job a secret from French girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder). But Cape Town is about to become a lot more exciting. Rogue ex-CIA agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a most wanted man, purchases a microchip with international state secrets from disgruntled MI6 agent Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham). Wade is immediately assassinated and Frost is targeted by the ruthless Vargas (Fares Fares) and his men. Frost is forced to take refuge at the US consulate.

At CIA headquarters in Langley, supervisors David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) are immediately alerted to Frost's sudden appearance at a US facility. They decide to move him to Weston's safe house for interrogation. A squad headed by agent Kiefer (Robert Patrick) extracts Frost from the consulate and transfers him to the safe house, and Frost is subjected to waterboarding. But Vargas and his men invade the safe house, forcing Weston to flee with Frost, and initiating a prolonged chase as the untried Weston is suddenly plunged into a high-stakes game of brutal, take-no-prisoners international spy deception.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Safe House is a slick-enough thriller. The action is frequent, there are sufficient reflective scenes to grow the characters, and the presence of Washington and Reynolds with a strong supporting cast ensures a consistent level of quality. The South African setting, a relative backwater in the global spy game, introduces a fresh perspective and justifies some of the agency stumbling. But the McGuffin at the centre of the film, in the form of an abstract database of intelligence agency wrongdoings, is rather stale.

This is a post-Bourne secret agent film, and so Espinosa adopts the shaky-camera and micro-editing techniques as his defacto style to jazz up most of the action scenes. He also frequently mixes in tiny flash-backs and flash-forwards to inject a sense of energy into the quietest interludes. There are some undeniably exciting moments and even a few relatively original set-pieces, including an expertly filmed rooftop chase at a Langa shantytown.

All the flashy touches teeter on the edge of overstaying their welcome, particularly with a running length of close to two hours. In the final 40 minutes it becomes evident that every shoot-out will be followed by a brutal hand-to-hand combat showdown which will be quickly followed by another shoot-out, but Espinosa maintains just enough control to deliver a taut chase movie with more good moments than bad.

As is usually the case, the strongest scenes feature the actors actually acting rather than dodging bullets or throttling each other. Washington and Reynolds never descend into trite buddy territory, and the tension between the jaded ex-agent and the bright-eyed wannabe hero underpins the film. Farmiga, Gleeson, Shepard and Patrick have less to do, but do it well. Safe House may be riddled with a few too many bullets, but it is well worth a visit.

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