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Denzel brings down the Safe House
Even when chased by big men with big guns and big cars, Denzel Washington keeps his cool. The actor characteristically brings depth to Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House, the director’s first English-language blockbuster. Starring Ryan Reynolds as a new-to-the-game CIA safe house monitor, and Washington as a rogue agent who ends up under Reynolds’ surveillance, the film sets itself up for sufficiently clever dialogue and often compelling dynamics. By refusing to stick to one genre, Safe House proves a through-and-through action film with the taste of a thriller and the insight of movies that would otherwise hold themselves to a higher artistic standard.
Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a low-rung CIA employee stationed as a safe house “housekeeper” in Johannesburg, South Africa. Resigned to taking phone calls from his higher-ups, Weston hardly stands a chance at re-locating to join his love interest in France. Around the same time, and also in Johannesburg, Denzel’s character Tobin Frost is shown, calm and collected, making a deal with a rather shady-looking politician.
True to the typical action script, the monotony of the characters’ backstories suddenly breaks into a lengthy, rambunctious chase. The camera jolts from car to car as a mysterious set of individuals surrounds Frost on all sides but one, making a U.S. consulate his only option for escape. Once the consulate workers realize who just showed up at their door, Frost is shipped to the nearest CIA safe house where Matt Weston is, up until that point, having yet another uneventful day.
Just as a team of interrogators arrives, the small break from action is interrupted yet again by an ambush from the same heavily armed men from the first chase. Despite the film’s on-again-off-again action, Safe House’s intricate plotline sets up each chase with care. Though it takes until the credits to piece together who, indeed, chases whom, the film is fast-paced and witty enough to hold even the most impatient viewer’s attention up to the end.
Espinosa plays Reynolds and Washington’s dynamic brilliantly, with dialogue more suited to a serious drama. The relationship between the two characters develops rather quickly, but Washington’s seasoned acting eases the abruptness of the characters’ introduction. Both humor and shock arise from the dialogue between the two, and Weston soon regrets his parting words to his supervisor: “How am I supposed to get more experience by staring at four walls all day?” Espinosa reflects Weston and Frost’s opposing anxiety and calm in the musical score, which fluctuates from fast-paced to somber instrumentals. Behind this, a rough but tasteful cinematography rounds out the film’s mood.
A handful of scenes are stylistically crafted to reveal the calm before the intermittent storms of action. One scene depicts Reynolds walking away from a bathroom, cleaned up, intercut with shots of him quickly changing clothes and haphazardly splashing his face with water. Mixed in are central exchanges between Frost and Weston, heavily reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs dialogues between the infamous Hannibal Lecter and fresh-out-of-the-box FBI agent Clarice Starling. Backed by a strong script, it is difficult to ascertain either’s motives until the movie decides to make the reveals.
Safe House is a heavily stylized, big-budget flick, often packing in the cleverness and action of a Guy Ritchie film while retaining the cool and composed reading of a spy novel—even riding on the dark overtones of a noir at times. Both Reynolds and Washington play their characters excellently, outshining the rest of the cast. While the dialogue goes down smooth, the audience is faced with a jolting aftertaste. Though Frost addresses Weston when he coolly comments, “I’m already in your head,” he might as well be speaking to the audience.