By Brian Lafferty
February 10, 2012 (San Diego) – Has Daniel Espinosa seen every single Tony Scott film? Based on what I saw in Safe House, I don’t doubt it. Safe House is so influenced by his films that it could very well have been directed by Scott.
Denzel Washington is a rogue CIA agent named Tobin Frost, who suddenly returns after nine years off the grid. Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a newbie just dying to get into the field. After a bunch of armed men blast their way into the safe house where Frost is being interrogated (at one point being waterboarded), Weston takes the unwilling agent as his prisoner and is instructed to go to another safe house. Frost escapes and now Weston must find Frost before the armed men do, while also trying to survive.
First-time scribe David Guggenheim wrote the screenplay. If I wasn’t admiring the stunt work and action sequences, my mind was trying to decipher the plot. In between the gunplay and car chases lurks a bunch of questions. Everything is on a “need to know” basis; Guggenheim withholds as much information as he can while slyly revealing the truth little by little. He also puts in for good measure several twists that even I couldn’t see coming.
The Tony Scott influence is deeply felt in the action sequences. The first car chase sequence could have easily been trite and boring. Director Espinosa and cinematographer Oliver Wood swooshes the camera, which editor Richard Pearson combines with short takes.
What makes this car chase sequence actually thrilling is that, for once, it recreates the feeling of a high-speed pursuit. It results in intensity and a surge of adrenaline that I rarely feel in car chases.
It isn’t just the car chase sequences that benefit from this style. The shootouts are choreographed the same way, rendering them equally exciting.
Some movies look as if the cameraman just roves the camera haphazardly, with no rhyme or reason. The cameraman for Safe House moves the camera when it’s necessary and does it gracefully. The camerawork isn’t sloppy and the action is comprehensible.
The editing can make or break a film like this. I always say that the action should dictate the shot length, not the other way around. I don’t disparage short takes as long as the action within those takes is finished. Cutting to the next shot before the action finishes is sloppy editing.
The reason the takes are short here is because the action within the takes is brief; there’s nothing to be gained by lingering on a shot if the purpose within it is achieved. I never got the sense that editor Pearson tried to create excitement through rhythmical manipulation. It at first looks deceivingly sloppy, but after a few moments you’ll quickly see otherwise.
Ryan Reynolds is a credible novice would-be agent. He’s not outstanding and he doesn’t have much charisma. But if the casting director was looking for someone to play a rookie with no field experience, then the boyish star was the right choice. Denzel Washington gets really into his enigmatic character, which went off the grid for nine years and is someone who is manipulative, dangerous and mysterious. This is not a thankless performance.
Safe House’s only major problem is that it goes on for far too long. Clocking in at a little less than two hours, it wears out its welcome three-quarters of the way in. I could easily see at least fifteen to twenty minutes being trimmed without losing anything.
Imitation can either be the sincerest form of flattery or the sincerest form of failure. Safe House will draw a lot of comparisons to Tony Scott’s work. This is a clone that actually gets it right.
Safe House is now playing in wide release.
A Universal Pictures release. Director: Daniel Espinosa. Screenplay: David Guggenheim. Original Music: Ramin Djawadi. Cinematography: Oliver Wood. Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, and Ruben Blades. 115 minutes. Rated R.