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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012 05:49 am

Actors overcome lapses in Safe House logic

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Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost and Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston in Safe House.

In Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House  there is a lesson to be learned: Be careful what you wish for. That’s something wet-behind-the-ears agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) learns the hard way as he grouses about his bottom-rung detail of maintaining a rarely-used CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. This is the sort of assignment they give to those on their way out or those who lack the ability to inspire. While the young man longs to shake loose from this detail, there simply isn’t any room for advancement when you’re not given a chance to prove yourself.

However, he gets the opportunity to do just that when in walks legendary spy Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an operative who dropped out of sight a decade ago and has been rumored to be selling secrets and other intel to the highest bidder. He also happens to be an expert interrogator, master manipulator and a deadly weapon – the sort of guy who could kill you with a Q-tip or a flick of the wrist. Seems a deal he orchestrated involving a computer file with reams of incriminating evidence went south and he was left with no other choice but to come in out of the cold. However, after the safe house proves to be not so safe, Weston is charged with delivering Frost to another location. But with seemingly omnipresent bad guys on their heels, this proves easier said than done.

Films such as this require a bit more suspension of disbelief than others, and House nearly bankrupts that good will. The movie’s first hour moves with a sense of logic that, if outlandish, is at least consistent. However, once we reach the film’s second half, there are moments that defy reason. Weston’s actions when he’s attempting to recapture Frost, who’s slipped away from him at a packed soccer stadium, are the sort of bonehead mistakes I’d know not to make, while the circumstances that lead to him tracking down his prey are too ludicrous to believe. However, the one trope that’s part-and-parcel of this genre that’s bugged me most over the years is what I call the “Superman Syndrome.” This is when characters are able to walk away from car crashes and the like that would kill a normal man, yet they have nary a scratch on them. The film mines this to a fault. Yet somehow we end up not caring too much about this bit of physical fiction, as we want to see just where Frost and Weston are headed.

Espinosa has obviously studied the techniques of two of Washington’s frequent collaborators – the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony – as he shoots the film in much the same style as these siblings who never met a camera they couldn’t move without reason. Coupling a quick, jump cut editing style with a point of view that’s constantly moving, the director delivers plenty of jarring images as well as a great deal of visual confusion. However, credit must be given for his choreography of the film’s two set pieces – one, an exhilarating car chase that will leave viewers rattled, the other, a foot chase across the roofs of the Cape Town slums. Both are showstoppers and indicate the director is capable of delivering thrills without needless motion and distraction.

In the end, it’s the two leads who save the film as they generate a nice bit of antagonistic chemistry. Reynolds is becoming one of our most reliable and enjoyable leading men as he wins us over with his charm and youthful innocence to the point that we’re on his character’s side. His turn here is no exception and while we know he’s in over his head, we’re hoping he can somehow come out unscathed. As for Washington…well, he’s Denzel Washington. He’s one of the rare breed of film actors who are incapable of giving a bad performance. Acting is in his blood and he’s able to bring to life whatever character he’s given with a sense of ease. He makes Frost a bad guy we hate to love yet we just can’t help ourselves. We see him having great fun needling Weston as well as dispatching bad guys with an iciness that makes him all the more charismatic. Sure, Safe House has more than its share of lapses, but with Washington in his element and Reynolds gamely keeping up, I recommend you just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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