Safe House

A formulaic but effective action vehicle for Denzel Washington.

For those who haven't gushed over the trailer yet, The Bourne Legacy is in the works and will be released this summer as the newest installment of the genre-defining series. Anyone who has seen an action movie in the last few years will know that we've been beholden to the legacy of the Bourne movies for quite some time now. Young director Daniel Espinosa’s high-octane espionage movie Safe House is among the very clearest examples of just how much influence Matt Damon's spy-on-the-run antics have had. Consider the following ingredients:

Highly trained, morally ambiguous, rogue operative protagonist: Check.

Incessant use of handheld camerawork and fast-cut editing that goes especially crazy during fight scenes: Check.

Crunchy car chases through tight city streets:Check.

Aerial shots of Washington D.C., with special emphasis on the Pentagon: Check.

A high-tech room full of pacing suits and uniformed assistants looking at screens and saying, "He just checked in at [foreign airport/train station]!": Check.

Pounding musical score with heavy emphasis on percussion: Check.

The presence of director of photography Oliver Wood in the crew list: Check. (Seriously, go check. He did all three Bourne movies.)

Tense conversations between high-level intelligence officers, including an admission that "we trained him to [overcome currently employed counterintelligence tactic]!": Check.

Implied criticism of American, Bush-era foreign policy, wherein the "bad" guys are created and employed by the "good" guys: Check.

Undeniable excitement: Check.

As the last item shows, this list isn't necessarily a criticism. There is a reason formulas develop, and the movie industry has the box office receipts to prove it. Whether we're watching Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Daniel Craig or now Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, the Bourne formula has reliably quickened our pulses for the better part of a decade. The trick for each subsequent outing is to tweak the formula just enough to give each new attempt its own identity.

This is Espinosa’s first major film, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel enough to truly distinguish his movie, he does choose his two primary tweaks well. The first and most effective tweak in Safe House is the casting of Denzel Washington. Ryan Reynolds is cast to type as rookie Matt Weston, and he does a fine job as an ordinary man driven to violence by circumstances behind his control; but it’s good old Denzel who elevates his character above the genre’s requirements. Mr. Washington portrays Tobin Frost, a legendary superspy gone AWOL. It’s the kind of material that Washington certainly has the movie star gravitas to phone in if he so chooses, and indeed when he first appears on streets of South Africa in the coolest hat and coat combination this side of American Gangster, we wonder if a great actor is repeating himself. Fortunately, Washington channels his considerable presence into a seething, sociopathic intensity that’s detailed with well-timed glimpses of humanity. It has to be difficult to play a man who is 97 percent remorseless without dipping into clichés, but Washington manages to make his peeks behind the emotional curtain brief and specific enough to keep us intrigued. At one point in the story, Frost is faced with the possibility of waterboarding, and he heckles his captors with that loaded smile we’ve seen so often from Washington. When it becomes clear that he will certainly undergo the torture, Frost drops the smile and a glimmer of fear peeks through before Frost replaces it with a frightening blend of focus and fatalism. Washington gives us this transition in one masterful stroke, in a single, unbroken, five-second camera shot pointed square at his face. Watching the transformation from my theater chair, I shook my head admiringly and thought, “That’s the whole reason you hire this guy.”

The other effective tweak is the movie’s increasingly ramped-up violence. The Bourne and two recent Bond movies haven’t scrimped on the fisticuffs and car crashes, but they’ve maintained a decidedly PG-13 course from movie to movie. Safe House starts off this way, with plenty of gunshots and broken glass but nothing more than a few extra drops of blood on a windshield here and there to signal that we’ve moved into an R rating. Yet as the movie progresses, the fight scenes get noticeably grimmer and more desperate. Frost and Weston’s enemies start coming to increasingly bad and protracted endings as our heroes’ actions dance around the blurry line of thrilling and killing. The feeling of the movie shifts from “the bad guys are losing” to “a lot of people are dying.” This certainly doesn’t make the movie any more fun, and some may feel cheated from having their escapist rugs pulled out from beneath them. Personally, I admired this shot of morality into a genre whose movies are often too busy to care. A few of the other films mentioned above have tipped their hats to the idea that beating people to death is bad for the soul, but Safe House is the first action movie in recent memory that takes the notion seriously enough to do something about it. The uglier violence of the film’s third act is meant to re-sensitize us a bit, and while philosophers can debate if this hypocritical or not, I certainly appreciated the gesture.

Safe House is not the joy ride it has been advertised to be, but it is an intense, well-acted, if somewhat familiar movie experience. The novelty of this kind of thing is long gone, but for those willing to get on the roller coaster one more time, there are some new things to see and ponder during ride.

Dan Cava is an independent filmmaker and the co-host of Moviemakers podcast, available soon on iTunes. Dan's directorial work can be seen at vimeo.com/dancava. He writes film reviews for RELEVANT magazine.

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