Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review: Safe House


"Safe House" has a lot going for it, and a few bad things that don't spoil the ride.

It's a slick, plot-driven thriller about the nasty underside of the spy game. It's got Denzel Washington doing his smooth-talking thing, playing the man of quiet confidence who doesn't feel a need to broadcast his exceptional skills to the world. His actions speak louder than.

The action scenes, especially the car chases and hand-to-hand fisticuffs, are crisp and well-staged. And the supporting cast is top-notch, including Vera Farmiga, Brenda Gleeson and Sam Shepard, not to mention Ryan Reynolds, who for once is not doing that smarmy cad with the heart of gold thing.

Some of the plot twists aren't twisty enough to prevent the audience from seeing them coming a ways off, and the movie's villain might as well be walking around with an 'X' on their head. But still, it's an undeniably engaging piece of entertainment, a bit of sweet cinematic candy with a little salt to it.

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a junior CIA agent with the worst posting possible: babysitting a safe house in Capetown, South Africa. These are the sort of places the spooks bring bad guys when they want to do things while the international community isn't watching. But Capetown is a sleepy burg, and Matt yearns for bigger things.

He gets his chance when a present arrives on his doorstep: none other than Tobin Frost, a living legend in the international espionage community. Tobin was once a top CIA agent himself, until he went rogue a decade ago.

Now he's got something really valuable, a computer file with Very Important Secrets. It's a classic MacGuffin -- nobody really knows what it is, but everyone wants it. Soon the safe house has been breached by bad guys, and it's up to Matt to bring Tobin in all by himself.

Tobin is one cool cat. When the goon squad threatens to waterboard him, he calmly informs them they're using the wrong thread of cloth to cover his face, then brags that he can last longer than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who managed 20 seconds. (A bit of Hollywood hoopla; Mohammed was reportedly waterboarded 183 times.)

Gleeson, the wonderful Irish actor, falls down while attempting an American accent -- no black mark there, since every U.K. thespian from Anthony Hopkins to Kate Winslet has punted in that regard. (The only truly good one I've heard, by which I mean I couldn't even detect the effort, was Aaron Johnson in "Kick-Ass.") He plays Barlow, a senior agency man and Matt's mentor.

Farmiga is Linklater, an ambitious rival of Barlow's who views Matt as an untested liability. Ruben Blades turns up as an old associate of Tobin, and Robert Patrick has a weary, professional air as the chief of the goon squad, tasked with doing stuff that isn't very pretty.

Rookie screenwriter David Guggenheim falls into some clich├ęs, but the story has good pacing and chirpy dialogue. Director Daniel Espinosa provides a sure hand, pinning Matt as the unimpeachable white knight surrounded by figures of dubious intention -- including Tobin and the CIA bosses who want his head on a platter.

The interplay between the wily old Tobin and the inexperienced Matt is rather predictable, but is often delicious. Robin lectures and berates Matt like Hannibal Lecter toying with Clarice Starling, offering sage advice one minute and trying to rip his throat out the next.

Talk about on-the-job training.

3 stars out of four

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