There’s something to be said for a movie that shows promise, makes a promise, and then keeps that promise. Some movies exceed their roots, and deliver more than they ever let you assume you would receive (I’m looking at you The Grey). Some movies crash to the ground, falling through the platform of expectations they had created and landing in a smoldering heap.
In between those two extremes of quality are the films like Safe House. Films that keep their promise. Films that know their limits, and don’t attempt to push beyond them, but simply hope to exceed within them. They don’t play outside of their field, they don’t try to create new arenas of expectation. They just step back, look at what is expected of them, and say “yes, I can do that, and you’re going to love it.”
- This story is a vague twist on a time-worn trope. Ryan Reynolds plays Matthew Weston, a CIA operative charged with keeping watch at the Cape Town safe house – a fortified, secret apartment that serves as jail, resting place, and operations hub. He wants a transfer to real field work, but keeps getting rejected due to lack of experience (a common catch-22 in any field). His life is tranquil and dull until the day that Tobin Frost (a reliably cool Denzel Washington) is brought in to be interrogated. Frost is a legend in the agency, the most capable agent in recent agency history who also happens to be a traitor. But why was he in Cape Town? Why did he turn himself in? Who are there men trying their best to get him, killing anyone who stands in there way, and why?
These questions create a kind of existential McGuffin, driving a plot that doesn’t really have many twists or turns that aren’t expected. Frost and Weston must for a ragged team in order to escape danger, and all the while Weston has to keep an eye on his “buddy” to make sure that he doesn’t escape back into the wilderness. It’s a duplicitously symbiotic relationship, and Reynolds and Washington pull it off beautifully and capably.
But the plot isn’t the primary selling point here. That would be the intense, visceral, uncompromising action scenes.
Action is a hard thing to direct effectively; a space has to be created, characters have to fill and move within that space in a way that is comprehensible, and the stakes of the action have to be clearly delineate and modulated. Many films try to get along with only achieving some of these. Perhaps they will hope that our investment in the plot/characters will mask the nonsense of the action. Shaky-cam techniques shadow a lot of those sins of laziness. Then there are the films that hope over-the-top bombast will make up for the fact that the characters are ridiculous and unbelievable and lacking in empathetic connection.
- These are all accepted techniques, and some decent movies have been made using those acts of slight of hand. Director Daniel Espinosa, however, give us characters we can invest in and allows for comprehensible and interesting action. Every chase is handled with close-up, impactful artistry. Every hand-to-hand fight is harrowing, drawn out, and painful to watch in the best way. Gun fights are loud, fierce, and suitably fulled with menace and finality.
Best of all is that even though Reynolds plays a novice, he’s not the usual movie-novice who has no idea what he is doing. In every situation his character equips himself well both in terms physicality and wits. He is truly a worth and capable reluctant compatriot for Frost. That means that there is never a break in the quality and tenor of the action scenes, making for a uniformly engaging experience.
All other actors play equally as well in their small, functional roles. Really, they are there to provide exposition, and they do so efficiently and directly without getting in the way of fresh set pieces. Who could ask for more?
Safe House is the perfect hamburger. The greatest grilled cheese. It delivers a product that exceeds the baseline but does not step outside of its own comfort zone, or the comfort zone of those who hope to consume it. In this way, it is better than the majority of the films that hope to capitalize on the boredom of filmgoers, and that makes it well worth seeing.