Film Review – Safe House
Not every film needs to be revolutionary; sometimes films are entertaining but disposable. They can be comfort food. Safe House, from director Daniel Espinosa, touches this category. Safe House tells the story of CIA operative Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds), who is in charge of a safe house in South Africa. After twelve months of doing nothing, he gets his first “house guest,” who happens to be the notorious former CIA agent turned traitor Tobin Frost (played by Denzel Washington). After Frost’s arrival at the safe house, they are immediately hit by an attack by some people in search of an item that Frost has obtained. The attack causes Weston and Frost to go on the run, while trying to figure out who sold them out.
The advertisements for this film told me two things: 1) It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, and 2) This was the type of film that was going to try to trick the viewer before revealing who was the traitor. One of the surprising elements that I was not expecting is that this film treats the mystery much like Mission Impossible III does: it isn’t so much about what was stolen, but about the adventure around that item. In fact, when they actually begin to discuss what the item is, it starts to feel cheesy. I wish they had left that detail up to the viewer’s imagination.
This film achieved a similar vibe to films such as 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13, where a police officer is forced to form an uneasy alliance with the criminal he is sworn to protect. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with that fact, and it ended up being not much of an issue because of the casting of Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington. Both of them are immensely talented and very charismatic. Beyond their individual characters, they have solid chemistry together. Even though it is clear that the filmmakers are trying to manipulate the audience like Frost tries to manipulate Weston, it didn’t bother me, since the two are so fun to watch.
The main problem with this film is that you basically learn nothing about the characters. We have no idea who Matt Weston or Tobin Frost are. Despite the fact that they seem to develop a respect for each other by the end, they don’t really discuss their pasts other than small bits that seem to allude to their motivations, but those are usually quickly dismissed. The majority of what we learn about them is discovered as characters at CIA headquarters in Langley run down their CIA file backgrounds in an attempt to try to figure out what is going on. As you can imagine, if your life were summarized in a couple paragraphs, it leaves out a lot of the nuance that make us human. If the film is successful enough to warrant a follow-up, they could easy do a prequel about the origins of Tobin Frost, as the film leaves many unanswered questions about his past.
Additionally, there is the awkward relationship Weston has with French student Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder). It feels shoehorned into the plot, since she doesn’t end up playing a significant role in the film. It doesn’t quite amount to the level of being a macguffin, since they don’t even really pretend she will have a significant impact. She doesn’t hurt the plot and her relationship provides a few of the answers we are given in the film, but it feels like her role was underutilized.
The bulk of the action takes place in Capetown, South Africa. There isn’t anything that necessarily made this film be set there—other than it was far away—which I was a bit disappointed by, but the cinematography is nice and Capetown plays a fun backdrop. I wish the environment and culture played more of a part of the story, but it was nice to see a filming location outside of the norm. The film uses timestamps to keep the audience up to date on the timeline. I’m not sure it really feels necessary, and there seem to be questionable plotholes when you factor it in, such as the recovery time from gunshots and how fast the CIA is able to dispatch agents from the US to South Africa. These moments fall more into the realm of nitpicking, though, and didn’t really hurt my enjoyment of the film.
Given everything I’ve said up to now, you might think I had a neutral or negative reaction to the movie, but that isn’t the case. It moves along at a consistent pace, the action is frequent and fun, the locations are varied and beautiful, and Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds do a solid job given the material. This is the kind of film that I would watch on a rainy day and not be disappointed. That being said, I’m not sure I will need to see it again, I’m good with that.
Final Grade: B