Friday, February 10, 2012

Safe House: Grim, fast-paced peril

Safe House (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for strong violence and occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang

Robert Redford read books, seeking clandestine patterns and hidden messages he never expected to find. Ryan Reynolds babysits a high-tech apartment for 12 hours every day, bouncing a tennis ball against empty walls.

After a year of nothing but dull monitor duty, junior CIA operative Matt Weston
(Ryan Reynolds) suddenly gets the call he thinks he's been waiting for: the
order to activate the safe house he has been babysitting. As the old saying goes,
though, be careful what you wish for: You may get it.
Suddenly, inexplicably, both men are on the run: targeted by callously efficient assassins, unable to distinguish good guys from bad guys, unwilling to turn to once-trusted colleagues.

Safe House is Three Days of the Condor for the post-Bourne generation: a sizzling, fast-paced thriller that pits cinema’s beloved man on the run against overwhelming, unknown and frequently confusing odds. And if Reynolds doesn’t quite have Redford’s graceful charm, he more than compensates with frustrated anguish and stubborn determination.

In short, Reynolds’ Matt Weston makes a thoroughly engaging and sympathetic hero: a good guy who deserves far better than the fate into which he has fallen.

David Guggenheim’s script for Safe House includes more than a few echoes of Condor, at times following that 1975 classic’s blueprint a little too close for comfort ... up to and including the cynical postscript. But Guggenheim also spins his plot into some fresh directions, and Swedish director Daniel Espinosa — making a stylish English-language feature debut — utilizes the story’s South African setting with imagination and verve.

Matt, chafing after 12 grindingly dull months playing “housekeeper” to this empty CIA safe house in Cape Town, has one bright spot in his otherwise tedious existence: French girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder), a young doctor in training. But she’s about to accept a post back in Paris, and — try as he might — Matt can’t persuade his friend and case officer back home, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), to get a transfer approved by Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), the deputy director of operations.

Elsewhere in Cape Town, disgraced CIA field agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), having just obtained some highly valuable intel from a colleague in MI6, finds himself on the run from a squad of killers led by the relentless Vargas (Lebanese actor Fares Fares, nightmarishly credible as a stone-cold killer). Having exhausted all other options, Frost surrenders himself at the American Consulate.

Back in the States, Whitford, Barlow and branch chief Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) are practically giddy with delight; Tobin, once one of the CIA’s best black ops assets, has eluded capture for a decade while aiding splinter cells and trading incendiary secrets to the highest bidder.

Whitford orders the Cape Town safe house activated; Matt is told to expect visitors. A few hours later, Frost is dragged in by field agent Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick) and a team of interrogators. The next few moments flirt with the questionable justification of torture, but Espinosa doesn’t dwell on moral ambiguity; within minutes, the safe house is assaulted by Vargas and his men, still after Tobin, and determined to leave no witnesses.

How did they know where to look?

This explosive attack, superbly choreographed by Espinosa and editor Richard Pearson (The Bourne Supremacy, Quantum of Solace), quickly segues into an equally audacious car chase through the streets of Cape Town; the entire sequence has us transfixed and breathless. To borrow a jazz idiom, it cooks.

Thanks more to luck than planning, Matt escapes with a handcuffed Tobin; the latter, hardly grateful to his new companion, is a reluctant prisoner at best. Matt calls Langley, desperate for guidance; Whitford, Barlow and Linklater immediately start squabbling over how such a leak could have occurred with such speed.

But with no other agents immediately at hand, they’re forced to tell Matt to sit tight, keep Tobin under close observation, and await further instructions.

Tobin, adept at psychological obfuscation, immediately gets into Matt’s head. As the master manipulator toys with his reluctant protégé, the young operative finds his idealism shaken and morality tested. Because, as the situation progresses, Matt is forced to admit that Tobin has a point: The CIA may not have their best interests at heart.

Washington plays Tobin with reptilian grace and dangerous charm, his deceptively merry eyes suggesting an unsettling ability to read minds. The characterization is tantalizingly complex; Tobin, having made betrayal a way of life, veers dangerously close to sliding into the callous inhumanity of the pursuing Vargas.

Washington’s richly layered performance shows us that Tobin is fully aware of how he has fallen not only from grace, but from the possibility of redemption. The man holds onto one cultured affectation: a fondness for fine wine. When granted the pleasure of his favorite vintage, Tobin embraces it the way other men would cherish lovers, wives or children.

“But that,” notes one of Tobin’s few genuine friends, later in this game, while pointing to the bottle, “that’s all you’ve got.”

Where Washington makes Tobin a smooth, resourceful planner — a chess master, always half a dozen moves in the future — Reynolds’ Matt is the opposite: desperately spontaneous, lacking both experience and confidence. The ultimate insult comes when Tobin, who inevitably slips away and snatches Matt’s gun, contemptuously refuses to pull the trigger.

“I only kill professionals,” the older man snarls, in Washington’s most derisive tone, as he strides off ... leaving Matt to contemplate certain dismissal from the CIA, over his botched handling of this assignment.

Ah, but this is only the second act, and the story’s far from over. Because while Matt may be raw, naïve and foolishly idealistic, he’s far from stupid. He’s also observant, and Guggenheim’s most ingenious touch is the subtle plot point that allows Matt to figure out where Tobin might be heading.

Although exciting and suspenseful, Espinosa’s film also is quite violent and frequently nasty, at times unpalatably so. The publicity campaign’s tag line reads “no one is safe,” and that’s no understatement. Guggenheim’s story goes out of its way to kill innocents, and this cruel streak risks alienating viewers.

One particularly vicious sequence occurs at Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium, built for the World Cup; the civilian carnage is wholly unacceptable and completely unnecessary.

That said, Espinosa utilizes this stadium setting quite cleverly, as also is the case with another rip-snorting action sequence, set amid the dilapidated structures of the Langa Township, in the Cape Town suburbs. The location photography here and elsewhere establishes a marvelous backdrop for this saga of the pursued and their pursuers.

Gleeson and Shepard, both veterans, build intriguing characters from the minimal sketches provided by Guggenheim’s script. Farmiga is less successful; Linklater comes off as little more than a petulant grouch who seems ill-equipped for her upper-echelon position.

Arnezeder is enchanting; she makes Ana playful, sexy and very much in love with Matt. Rubén Blades pops up as a skilled forger from Tobin’s past, and Patrick leaves no doubt that his CIA interrogator would regard waterboarding as a means to an end.

Ramin Djawadi’s percussive score gets redundant at times, devolving into no more than low, pulse-like throbs: effective in small doses, but not terribly imaginative.

That said, Espinosa makes the most of music, location photography, rapid-fire editing and all the other elements at his disposal. He crafts a worthy thriller; we hang on for dear life because we’re thoroughly invested in the characters played by Washington and Reynolds.

Safe House is a taut roller coaster, and I’m sure it’ll earn repeat viewing — both on the big screen, and eventually at home — from fans eager to experience its action sequences again.

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