Safe House

OSMAN RIAZ thinks this movie is like popcorn: unfulfilling and noisy, but still compulsive.

action CIA crime Denzel Washington Film Osman Riaz popcorn review ryan reynolds Safe House thriller

Directed by Daniel Espinosa.

[rating: 3/5]

BOOM, BANG-BANG, POP-POP-POP, BOOM! Etc. As such, for a flabby 117 minutes, proceeds Safe House, leaving one’s ears ringing but eyes fixated.

A self-indulgent and proud-of-it action bonanza, Safe House’s grainy cinematography depicts CIA rookie Matt Weston’s (Ryan Reynolds) desperate struggle to survive, as he attempts to transport the most-wanted Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) from an unsafe Safe House to a safe Safe House.

Considering the appraisable coherency of my plot description, it’s a shame that the film makes no such effort in clarifying the tortured narrative: we are simply left to deduce, from the familiarity of its iconography (complete with gun-toting Arab mercenaries and corrupt American bureaucracy), what’s going on.

But why concern yourself with what’s going on, when really, like me, you’re there for the explosions, thrills, and the unimpeachable Denzel Washington. Any man named ‘Denzel Washington’ is bound to be cool, but the actor’s effortlessly suave and engagingly modest portrayal of an ex-CIA-man turned traitor is helplessly cool. Combined with his typical underlying pathos and affability, Washington’s reprisal of the anti-hero (as opposed to sheer villainous) character is welcomed. (He can add it to a list including Training Day (2001) and American Gangster (2007), albeit, in terms of quality, beneath these.)

So cool he doesn’t sweat: he glistens.

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa has torn pages – quite loudly – from Tony Scott’s book, who, in turn, is Washington’s usual go-to director for action. Sub-Scott, regardless, Espinosa relentlessly pumps the gauge of (entertaining and well-orchestrated) action, complete with car chases and crashes, infinite ammunition, intense close-quarters combat, and thunderous sound-mixing (my ears really did ring).

I yawned at the prototypical political coda disturbing the general mindlessness of the story. National Security is a disgrace, I know. The CIA is a hotbed of corruption, we get it. (Just think: if it wasn’t, you’d eliminate an entire genre.) The only glimpses of integrity offered by the narrative are those nuanced psychological instances of irony, as when Reynolds’s rookie forces himself to torture an aggressor for information, having previously condemned the waterboarding of Frost. But they’re scattergun in approach, and not as interesting as guns.

I should re-mention the cinematography, and commend the brave decision to purposefully dull and degrade the image, removing the gloss, and echoing, with deep nostalgia, those long-gone action extravaganzas of the late-80s and 90s. However, the film has very little comic relief (even Reynolds tones himself down to become near-tolerable) and stays away from awkward one-liners. Not much is said, in fact, as it flicks back-and-forth from Washington-and-Reynolds and the CIA headquarters, itching for the next startling explosion of action.

This much can be said for Safe House: it’ll keep you crunching the popcorn as it crunches through skulls, without even making you hesitate to consider how dissatisfying popcorn (or skull-crunching, for that matter) actually is.

And so, I’m resolved to reward Safe House three stars: one for the choreography of the action, one for the anchoring performances, and one for its marvellously indulgent dedication to an increasingly gadgetised genre. But, left wanting narrative and stylistic fulfilment, I must keep them other two stars in my pocket.