Thursday, February 9, 2012

Safe House

There should be more thrillers like Safe House: smart, engaging movies made for adults. With a propulsive score and breakneck pacing to match, the movie tears through a series of double-crosses, shootouts, and narrow escapes usually reserved for summer blockbusters. Lucky for us, it looks like summer's come early this year.

Safe House
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low-level CIA babysitter for a safe house in South Africa. He's paid his dues for a year, and now he wants nothing more than to move to Paris with his girlfriend and take on a position with more responsibilities. When agent-turned-traitor Tobin Frost (Washington) appears after years off the grid, Weston gets an unexpected house guest.  But Frost has information that men are willing to kill for, so the safe house is compromised and Weston's the only one who can get Frost to the nearest extraction point. But not only is he dodging bullets from trained mercenaries, he also has to contend with Frost himself, a master manipulator super-agent who has his own plans for escape.

Safe House is a great example of how a fresh vision can elevate a tried-and-true concept. Espinosa takes a familiar story and deftly applies his signature to it: the blown-out color palette seems to mirror Weston's heightened experiences, and the disjointed editing - transitions oftentimes bleed audio from one sequence into visuals from the next - reflect both Weston's increasingly taxed mental state and Frost's commanding ability to slip through the proverbial cracks. The South African setting also sets the film apart from others in the genre, with a nice set piece at a crowded football (soccer) stadium and an action-heavy shootout in a tiny shanty town. For Espinosa's American filmmaking debut, working with a comparatively huge budget and acting superstars for the first time, Safe House is quite an accomplishment.

Washington delivers yet another strong performance, devoting himself to his character so much that he actually endured a brief session of waterboard torture during filming. He's always been a captivating person to watch, and his natural charisma shines through even in a "bad guy" role. Reynolds is good, too; naive but always believable, he carries the film dramatically and holds his own during some ferocious fight scenes. Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson both have fine supporting turns, and it seems Farmiga is carving out a nice little niche for herself as the authoritative woman on the other end of the phone (she played a similar role in last year's Source Code).

The script, by first-time screenwriter and former Us Weekly editor David Guggenheim, tears along at an incredible pace, quickly setting up the action and leaving the exposition to be revealed further down the line. It's a conventional premise, but he sprinkles in just enough unique moments to give the film a life of its own. The action beats are fun to watch, and the film's denouement touches on some meaningful points about government transparency. Safe House is the type of movie I hope for when I go to the movies: well-acted, stylish entertainment that gives me something to chew on besides popcorn. Until next time...

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