Friday, February 10, 2012

Getting Punched In The Face By Denzel Washington: Safe House



This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I realize it may seem like I begin a lot of movie reviews with a discussion of whether or not the male lead takes his shirt off. But I think when the male lead in question has something like this in his past, it's a hard (no pun intended) subject to simply ignore.

So, for the record, Ryan Reynolds does take his shirt of in the new espionage thriller Safe House. But it's only in the beginning, and it's not for very long. If that's your sole reason for seeing this movie, save your money.

With that out of the way, we can move on to more important things. Like Denzel Washington's smile!

Just kidding.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Matt Weston, a young CIA operative stuck in a crappy position manning a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He's desperate to move to a better position, ideally in France so he can be with his (requisite) girlfriend when she moves back home. When rogue agent Tobin Frost (Washington) turns himself into the U.S. Consulate, agents in the States decide to detain him at the safe house and perform some "enhanced interrogation techniques."

What seems like a relatively simple job for Weston turns into something much worse when the safety of Frost, and everyone in the safe house, is compromised. Soon, Weston finds himself solely responsible for Frost's detention and safe keeping.

Yes, Denzel Washington does flash his famous smile more than once as rogue CIA Agent Tobin Frost, and he's as comfortable in this complex-bad-guy role as he's been every other time he's done something similar. Maybe even a little too comfortable. He's got this kind of role down so pat, I almost can't help but think of Jay Pharoah's dead-on impersonation whenever Washington does his patented thing. And it makes me want to see Washington in something completely different, like a comedy, or a romance. (Take a romantic lead, Denzel! Do it!)

Safe House doesn't waste any time getting started, with people getting shot and chased through the streets within its first 10 minutes. Because of the fast pace, I was a little worried I wasn't actually following the plot well, wondering who the hell it was Frost was meeting with, what he was buying, and who it was that wanted to kill him.

Turns out, the plot is a lot simpler than it first appears to be, and this lack of complexity is actually a bit disappointing. What Frost is in possession of, and what it can mean to the world's defense and investigative agencies is massive. How the movie handles it isn't. Political implications and ramifications are not the goal here; kicking ass and chasing cars is.

And indeed there is more face punching going on in this thing than there is in many of the Rocky movies. And I've got to applaud Ryan Reynolds's acting here. He makes getting fake-punched in the face feel so real I was beginning to fear for his safety. More than once he looks like his eyes are going to pop out of his head, he appears to be in so much pain. Too bad they don't give out Oscars for one's ability to turn one's own face purple.

The movie also offers a pair of very exciting car chases, one of which includes Ryan Reynolds getting punched in the face by Denzel Washington WHILE MANEUVERING THROUGH TRAFFIC.

Director Daniel Espinosa definitely has a keen eye for action sequences; it's a shame he muddies that action with purposely grainy film stock, shaky camera work, and an annoying tendency to keep shots out of focus.

Some great actors round out the cast, including Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, Robert Patrick, Ruben Blades, and Brendan Gleeson, and as such, Safe House is filled with better performances than a movie with such a familiar plot deserves. Because of those performances, and its above average moments of action, the film is able to rise to the level of pretty solid entertainment--just not something you'll be thinking about much after the lights come up. (Though I dare you to get that theme song out of your head in under a day.)

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