Weep for the state of the B-action movie if this long-lens mess of handheld coverage and tiresome spectacle editing is representative of the action genre’s status quo.
Safe House is a by-the numbers espionage actioner in which Ryan Reynolds plays the caretaker of a South African CIA safe house who, after a year of uneventful due-paying in the empty and unused facility, is suddenly thrust into the center of plot to take out a notorious defector. Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington, is a rogue agent who has been trading intelligence secrets for years and is forced to turn himself in once heat from third-party mercenaries gets to hot. Once in American custody and parked in the safe house though, Frost is still the target of those well-armed militants who penetrate the secured location and send both our lead characters on the run.
As you may expect, Safe House is in perfect continuity with the last few years of mid-tier action flicks and is built from the same geometrically sculptural editing of handhled, long-lens coverage that is the basis for all the work from Simon West, Gary McKendry, Baltasar Kormákur, and many more over the last few years. Like all of them, director Daniel Espinosa is attempting to ape the gritty, energetic style that Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass have been trading on for some time, though without any of their sophistication. No, this is store-brand, distilled Tony Scott bullshit, lacking even the practiced (if shallow) panache of that hit-or-miss auteur. A tiresome, hackneyed script trots out the same obvious betrayals and half-assed political bullshit as a dozen thrillers before it, unwinding a string of action scenes that don’t stab at your adrenal glands so much as poke at them listlessly.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing especially stupid about the script or especially terrible about the action, it’s just all as bland as a vanilla wafer, even if it’s slathered in digital grain and high contrast while Washington quips and smirks. The action scenes just sort of play out competently, with no special energy or stakes. Imagine a world-class Parkour free-runner on his morning cardio jog down the sidewalk. Sure, he doesn’t trip or anything, but why are we watching this? There’s certainly nothing particularly compelling happening between the action scenes as this blatant example of a “…and then …and then …and then” screenplay just sort of throws delays and goals at the characters to keep things moving.
Ryan Reynolds is, at this point, more than practiced at carrying an action film like this, but the script provides him no meat and Reynolds doesn’t fill it in with anything other than his default personality. A talented actor and comedian though he may be, Reynolds hasn’t refined an ability to rise above a featureless character as written. Denzel Washington is of course a veteran of injecting class and charm into undeserving material, and yet here his character is so murky that even the usual Washington charisma is dialed down a little. He gets his one-liners and has all the angles figured out certainly, but this is bargain-basement slumming for a paycheck he doesn’t need. The two actors have a chemistry, but it’s so stop and start and thematically hazy that any mutual respect or hesitant camaraderie feels completely unearned. Once again, this just feels like a watered-down replication of a dynamic from a similar, better movie.
Strangely, one of the biggest sins of the film is that it’s fucking ugly. Bourne Trilogy cinematographer Oliver Wood has lost his grip here on the focused anarchy of the Greengrass style and turns in a messy, under-lit smear. What’s worse is that the film is a technical embarrassment, with some of the most atrocious focus-pulling seen in a blockbuster in some time. It’s irritating that one set-up could be deemed acceptable with Denzel Washington’s face blatantly out of focus (while the nobody in the reverse shot is perfectly sharp), but it becomes completely shameful after the half-dozenth time. This sort of sloppy, tired style combined with the lazy disregard for any standard of cinematographic quality is the kind of shit giving digital cinema a bad name.
This is a harsh take on what is ultimately a throwaway February B-flick but when even a film like Contraband can at least jazz up its proceedings enough to stand out early in the year (meanwhile Haywire simply and effectively subverts the idea of this kind of action film entirely) there’s no excuse for this empty shell of an action movie.
Seriously Hollywood, get this weak shit out of my face.