Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 11, 2012 3:38 pm 
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Coming of age in the CIA

Arriving during Hollywood's winter dead season, director Daniel Espinosa (who you may be surprised to learn is Swedish) has delivered what looks like a world-class mass market thriller about a rogue CIA agent and a rookie who pursues him. It stars Denzel Washington, one of the biggies, as the rogue. The boyish, button-eyed up-and-comer Ryan Reynolds is the rookie agent. We have the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard as backup. Writer David Guggenheim provides a grand design by adopting a Bourne-style format: while the rogue agent and the rookie run around across the world they're being intensively tracked by CIA headquarters at Langley. This parallelism makes the protagonists' exploits seem more important, complex, and worthy of our attention.

Safe House adopts the view that in international intelligence operations no one is to be trusted, everybody lies, and betrayal can turn out to be a noble act. John Le Carré would probably concur, but he might express that conclusion in subtler fashion. This is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but not one notable for its subtlety. Despite its Bourne borrowings this is another international spy actioner that's not up to the Bourne level. Safe House comes on as world class, but isn't quite. But it does deliver in the action department. Some critics have acknowledged this. Others, disappointed that the movie isn't quite as good in all aspects as it promises to be, have torn Safe House to shreds. They question the quality of young Espinosa's work and insist that Reynolds is unworthy to appear in the same frame with Washington. But Espinosa deserves a chance. It's unfair to Denzel to insist he must always be invincible. Ethan Hawke managed to hold the ground with him. Why not Reynolds?

True, Reynolds is relatively untried in this field. But he showed respectable acting chops in the 2010 Buried, a kind of non-action actioner, out of Edgar Allen Poe, of a man who wakes up and finds himself nailed into a wooden box in an Iraqi war zone. Safe House puts Reynolds in a bigger box, an empty building in South Africa, and gives him the opportunity to drive, leap, shoot, smash and grapple with the best of them. His character proves an excellent improviser and, when pressed, speaks fluent Afrikaans. Reynolds builds up a powerful intensity that the movie needs to balance the often very laid-back Washington; he bursts with physicality and desire. Denzel exudes his usual confidence, but he's otherwise on auto-pilot.

You can tear almost any action picture to shreds. Espinosa goes for surprises by delivering roughness. Some of the action is indeed hard to follow for a few moments, but that's Espinosa's way of making us experience the unpredictability and violence of events. In fact Safe House's cinematography is by Oliver Wood, who shot the last three Bourne movies. Some have called the action sequences worthy of John Woo and others have found them incoherent. It seems people have not yet grasped Espinosa's visual style.

Here's what happens -- the part I can tell. Young CIA agent Matt Weston (Reynolds), who has a beautiful French girlfriend called Ana (Nora Arnezeder, of Barratier's Paris 36) has been the "housekeeper" of a "Jo-burg" safe house for a year. He has just been pestering his boss David Barlow (Gleeson) for a promotion, when the call comes that Tobin Frost (Washington), for a decade the Agency's most notorious and accomplished rogue seller of trade secrets to Mossad, MI-6, etc., has been captured and will be brought in for questioning. When Frost is just being waterboarded, Baddies attack the house and kill the whole team of brought-in interrogators. Weston escapes with Frost and manages to hold onto him for most of the movie.

This becomes a several-day "Training Day" during which Frost wipes out a goodly swatch, but not all, of Weston's idealism, and while running away and after each other the two men and the baddies kill off a number of apparently innocent people. This is a coming of age drama with the old master bowing out and a by now heavily ironic torch passed on to a new generation. While struggling to turn in Frost, the seller of secrets, Weston learns that his handlers are all corrupt too.

This relentless run-around lacks the inventive story line of Colombiana or the thrilling set pieces of Mission Impossible IV. Those two movies have multiple locations, distinctive segments that are part of the excitement of the genre. The Bourne movies tend to shift countries continually and thereby shift moods and even the protagonist's sense of identity. Safe House is more one-track. Everything either happens on the Langley set with its computers and phones, its pacing administrator and squabbling managers, or is set in South Africa, a place whose mood and look are not sufficiently well established. Though eventually we get to shantytowns and wasteland, the earlier action in Johannesburg, even at a jammed soccer stadium where things go wild, could just as well be L.A. And anyway we'd like to go someplace other than South Africa or Langley.

On the other hand there is nothing to quibble with in the acting. I was prepared to scoff at Reynolds after the limp Green Lantern, but he rises to the occasion this time. After all, Matt Damon seemed pretty bland at one point. Reynolds is unlikely to generate his level of intelligence, but he might gain some cred if he keeps at it. Denzel Washington is still formidable, but his Tobin Frost is a man who is no longer on top, who would turn himself in at the Cape Town US consulate and would allow a CIA underling to put him in the trunk of a car. This is more interesting than invincibility or charismatic thuggishness, and it gives Reynolds some chance to shine.

Whatever the flaws, Safe House is fun to watch, full of intensity and with plenty of surprises and a violence that takes itself seriously but not too seriously.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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