Watched Mar 25, 2012
A mish mash of genres (spy movie, anti hero flick, the rookie & the veteran etc.), Safe House is one of the better examples of the kind of mediocre fare that abounds during the fallow period between awards season and the annual onslaught of summer blockbuster movies. In a nutshell, Denzel Washington pretends to play the bad guy (Tobin Frost), a rogue former spook, to Ryan Reynolds’ quivering lipped CIA ingénue, Matt Weston. Handing himself in to the Americans after a black market sale of intelligence goes south, Frost ends up in the backwaters of Weston’s Jo’burg safe house, where some mild torture takes place before an assault team forces Weston and Frost to go on the run. And that’s just the prologue.
On the plus side, it’s refreshing to see a film shot outside the urban confines of overly familiar Western cityscapes, especially when paired with Oliver Woods’ raw, reality tv style of cinematography. Johannesburg’s unfamiliar tumult and roasted landscapes lift what would otherwise be a string of unremarkable chase scenes stretching from the city centre to the chaos of the townships to the open horizons of rural South Africa. Some of the fight scenes, particularly those that take place in confined spaces, are absolute doozies too, reminiscent of the brutal close quarter combat style of the Bourne movies.
Unfortunately, that’s more or less it for the pro column. Regardless of the fact that Washington is capable of remarkable things even when he’s phoning it in, doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s…phoning it in. Reynolds (bless him) doesn’t really stand a chance whenever he’s sharing the screen with his magnetic co-star, often looking like he’s wandered in from the set of a lighter film with less worthy intentions and far more wisecracks. As a central duo, they both earn their paychecks, but don’t really gel as one of cinemas great double acts.
Despite the unusual location, there’s also a disappointing sense of opportunity missed, with no African actors (apart from some of the near mute gunmen) and very little sense of South African society and culture. Granted, it’s not a movie about SA, but films made in less run-of-the-mill locations tend to work best when the setting quietly seeps through into the movie’s DNA (think District 9, Monster, Lost in Translation). The flimsy cobweb of relationships running through the film don’t help either, as clunky, shallow and unconvincing as the plot. You’ll know within about 10 minutes exactly how this is all going to play out, including who the bad guys are. Even the grittily realistic camerawork becomes wearisome after the first hour - no amount of jiggily camera angles are ever going to make up for an uninspiring script and lazy plotting.
It’s not that Safe House is a bad film, it’s just tediously workmanlike, retreading wearily familiar ground with nothing new to add. To be fair, it was probably one of the better movies out at the time, but running at an unnecessarily lengthy two hours, it would have been just as easy to linger over dessert and go and see the more sprightly Woman in Black instead.