** Safe House (2011)
The first time we see Denzel Washington in director Daniel Espinosa’s CIA action-thriller Safe House (on DVD/Blu-ray June 5th) tells you everything you need to know about his character. He’s a rogue agent. You can tell this because his hair and goatee have gone west…. Cornel West, that is. Washington plays an agent named Tobin Frost (ya… I know) who went off the reservation 9 years earlier and then just appears one day and turns himself in at the American consulate in Cape Town. We also know, because they cast Denzel Washington in the role, that he didn’t do whatever bad things they’re claiming he did. The only question that remains is just how long it will take for him to exonerate himself and implicate a bunch of big wigs back at HQ (115 minutes, as it turns out).
Safe House is exactly the opposite kind of film that I’ve been gravitating to lately. It received relatively high scores from the audience (a nearly indisputable way to identify the worst of Hollywood’s dross) and a measly 52/100 from the stupid critics. Were it not for Denzel’s cool magnificence, I’d have likely skipped this one altogether (although the thought of having two stars with a combined cosmetic dental bill of around $200,000 going toe to toe does appeal to me). The other $100 grand worth of toothy augmentation was spent on one Ryan Reynolds, the Vancouver lad who, no matter how hard Hollywood tries, they just can’t seem to make into a leading man.
Tobin is whisked away to the titular safe house by a quickly-assembled extract team and taken to an interrogation room where it becomes quite obvious that he’s about to get a hands-on lesson in C.I.A. Torture 101. Unfazed, because he’s Denzel-fucking-Washington, the coolest dude on the planet, he just waits patiently for his waterboarding to commence. Cool as a cucumber, he can’t even be bothered to look even a little nervous about the prospects of being tortured. Now that’s grace under pressure.
Ryan Reynolds, whose perfectly-white teeth don’t quite compensate for the fact that his eyes are both too small and too close together, plays a green field agent charged with keeping the safe house operational and after another gang of bad-asses show up and kill everyone, Ryan is tasked with transporting Mr. Frost to a new, safer house. Of course this sets the stage for a series of escapes and chase sequences that action-thrillers rely on when their plots are too thin to support enough dialogue for a feature-length film. Back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard drone on in endlessly-boring bureaucrat-spy scenes that have about as much drama as a conversation about Roncesvalles pet grooming options outside Cherry Bomb on a Sunday afternoon. On the upside, Farmiga’s bizarre “authority-blouses” are a sight to behold. One critic called them “high-Dunaway”
Meanwhile, Washington puts on yet another clinic on how to do stardom, for Reynolds this time, who seems to improve with each passing scene. Apparently, just being in close proximity to Denzel makes you cooler. Previous pupils include Ethan Hawke in Training Day and, more recently, Chris Pine in last year’s Unstoppable. Washington’s serenity borders on the absurd and yet somehow he makes it work. The direction is the standard shaky-camera/jump-cut horseshit and all the typical tropes and action-thriller fall backs are employed. It’ll take about 5 minutes to figure out that the fat guy everyone likes is the bad guy, etc., etc.
Without Washington, this would be a direct-to-Netflix waste of time, but with him, it’s elevated above the standard fray. If you’re the kind of person who rereads books you liked, it’ll do. If you want something a little more original, rent Training Day again.