We’re all aware of the dangers that a first-time director can pose to promising ideas; we need only look at a director as talented and revered as David Fincher – who has long redeemed himself since Alien 3 – to see how even the best-intended first forays into Hollywood filmmaking can fall irreparably flat. Daniel Espinosa, though no newbie to directing – having helmed three films in his native Sweden – finds himself inexorably snared between his own gritty if overly busy form, and the disappointingly frequent boneheadedness of the film’s script.
The real attraction of this thriller – to the audience and no doubt to the crew – is the enticing pairing here of A-listers Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. Washington’s presence here is one which he has spent a fine latter career fashioning, of the ass-kicker, Tobin Frost, a rogue former CIA agent who is stashed away in a safe house, while Reynolds’ naive, good-natured agent Matt Weston is, well, the type of person you would never ever put in charge of a CIA safe house containing a valuable prisoner.
The film begins with several loud, chaotic bangs, as a character gassing with Frost is promptly shot through the head, which, with the unexpected South African setting, creates a distinctively unsettling atmosphere to start. Meanwhile, Weston lazes around in an ennui-inducing safe house, waiting for orders day-to-day but receiving none, an effective dramatic nuance and one which might have made an interesting art-film in itself. Soon enough, the more routine premise locks into place, an Assault on Precinct 13-esque jaunt in which a team of CIA-employed grunts (led by the ever-welcome Robert Patrick) transport Frost to the safe house, and then attempt to hold off a force of insurgents who, for some reason, wish to kidnap Frost.
During these opening scenes there are some giddily ironic moments that the film itself doesn’t even seem to be aware of – the madness of taking a prisoner to a safe house only to torture him, for starters – but it isn’t long before things slide too-comfortably into convoluted formula, plagued entirely by the fact that the CIA would have profiled Reynolds’ mild-mannered, easily-manipulated character and never allowed him to take care of a safe house, especially by himself. That Washington and Reynolds are so good together will sell the product to many alone, and the added classing-up of the supporting work by Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson as CIA operatives can never do much harm, but everyone involved – Espinosa included – is let down by David Guggenheim’s uneven script.
The question for much of the film, as Frost and Weston flee the safe house to locate a replacement hideaway, is whether Frost, a master of manipulation, is playing his captor or not. As that idea alone can apparently not sustain a two-hour action film, things soon enough get very silly, especially when Weston idiotically pulls a gun on some South African police and ends up being separated from Frost as they are hauled in different directions. It’s a laughably brain dead moment, a desperate, unbelievably lazy plot device, useful only to pad out the run time and present the most transparent of obstacles for the protagonist. Of course, Weston breaks free from capture moments later to pick up his pursuit once again. By the time the pair are again in hiding and again find themselves besieged by armed goons, the film begins to feel rather rote, though at this point it becomes a showcase for Espinosa’s showy, if excessive, action aesthetic.
From a technical perspective, the film is often at its best; the sound editing, particularly during the initial safe house gunfight, is blisteringly textured, while the visuals demonstrate a suitably gritty, handheld look that, with the casting of Washington, will probably make many think that Tony Scott held the directing reins. There is a certain sub-Bourne monotony to the “shaky cam” action sequences, though, such that you’ll often just wish they had kept the camera still. The jolting movement during car chases is permissible given the inherent shakiness of sitting in a car, but when Denzel gets involved in a punch-up and the camera flails around as though the film is being bootlegged by an epileptic, it is simply a frustrating conceit.
However, you’ll be begging for this sort of throwaway action once the even more dispensible ancillary plotlines start to creep in, most noticably the soapy drama with Weston’s girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder), which falls almost entirely flat and simply serves as downtime between the frenetic action. Though one mid-film exchange between the two is admittedly very well-acted, there’s not enough dramatic heft here to justify how much screen time is devoted to it. What does work in terms of the characters – much more convincingly than the anodyne romance – is the chemistry between the two leads. Pitting Washington against Reynolds is a heavenly match, albeit one which sees Reynolds take an oddly weak stance despite being of clearly grander physical presence than Washington.
To top it all off, there is a good twist in here which isn’t telegraphed at all and you probably won’t guess, followed by a less-exciting – though fairly grim – finale which is soiled by a predictable and pointless fake-out which I expect nobody will fall for. Like Reynolds’ recent marvel Buried, the temptation cannot be resisted to make a broad political comment at the end, albeit one which rouses pleasantly contradictory emotions. What it has to say about the power of information feels surprisingly relevant in light of the recent Wikileaks scandal, though this point is not lingered on any more than it needs to be. Unfortunately, the final scenes meander for far too long – again bringing Weston’s romantic interests into play – such that the dramatic interest of the more visceral scenes is promptly pipped.
One could not deem the film aggressively annoying – aside from the hyperactive action – and if Espinosa can tidy up his style a little, he can probably end up breezing through this sort of bog-standard fare in his sleep. Reynolds and Washington don’t disappoint, nor do the supporting cast members, but there’s absolutely nothing here you haven’t seen before. Safe House is a competently-acted but utterly forgettable procedural that’s full of exasperatingly idiotic character decisions due to lazy scripting.
Safe House is due for release February 10th in US cinemas and on February 24th in the UK.