Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa (“Easy Money”)
Written by: David Guggenheim (debut)
The rules are fairly easy in Hollywood if you’re a filmmaker wanting to direct a movie. Prove yourself a moneymaker like Michael Bay and budgets will usually swell. Problem is, every bloated and brainless production looks like the next one on the conveyer belt and mainstream audiences – despite their insatiable need for big explosions and pricey special effects – sometimes don’t fall for it (see “Green Lantern” or “Speed Racer”). What’s a studio to do when it wants to hire a new voice, but doesn’t want to gamble $170 million on someone whose resume only features a collection of really slick-looking TV commercials? The answer: Find some foreign talent yet to be influenced by the big industry machine and see if they can figure out how to inventively bash robot heads together at half the salary.
Examples from the past few years include Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, whose film work in Moscow earned him the right to make the 2008 Angelina Jolie action flick Wanted, and Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson,” “Pusher” trilogy), whose first American-made film was last year’s stylish arthouse hybrid “Drive.” Next in line to take a swing at an America action movie is Swedish-Chilean director Daniel Espinosa with “Safe House,” an exceedingly routine spy thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds that will easily be lost among the mediocrity come March. Despite keeping things moving with some creative stunt driving and distracting editing, the film falls short in the screenplay department. While adequate in small doses, the lightweight plot, which becomes increasingly formulaic and predictable, doesn’t do much to heighten Espinosa’s visual approach or Washington’s villainous intentions.
Washington has played the bad guy before, but in films like “American Gangster” and his Oscar-winning role in “Training Day” there was more to his character than firing a slug into someone’s forehead or pointing a pair of pistols at a hoodlum’s groin. There was depth in those performances that simply isn’t found in the “Safe House” script of first-time screenwriter David Guggenheim. As renegade CIA operative-turned-traitor Tobin Frost, Washington makes his dead-on gazes work for him, but aside from the tough exterior there’s little about Frost that would send a chill down anyone’s spine. He’s selling government secrets in South Africa when he ends up in the custody of his former agency. Left to contend with Frost is Matt Weston (Reynolds), a low-level MI6 agent who must try to keep his “high-profile asset” alive as both are tracked by a mob of assassins. Wasting away in the wings are actors Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard, who stay holed up at CIA headquarters supervising the jerry-rigged mission for most of the runtime.
For those who like the hand-to-hand combat of the Jason Bourne series and the firefights and action of something like “Assault on Precinct 13” or “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Safe House” might be a safe bet for a matinee if you’ve already caught up on the spillover from 2011. As much as the film wants to be a battle of wits between Washington and Reynolds, there isn’t nearly enough downtime for bullets to stop flying and a significant conversation to take place. Basically, this is a 106-minute chase scene through Cape Town that highlights a few fun stunts and some trivial storytelling. Espinosa does his best impersonation of Paul Greengrass and Tony Scott, and therein lies the problem. Until foreign directors like him realize their American films don’t necessarily have to be Americanized, we’ll continue to get what ultimately ends up being copies of copies of copies.
When filmmaker Daniel Espinosa’s Swedish crime drama “Easy Money” opened inSwedenon Jan. 15, 2010, it had to go up against some major competition at the box office. A little record-breaking movie called “Avatar” had just debuted four weeks prior and won the box office for each of those weeks. There was no way a smaller movie like “Easy Money” was going knock the James Cameron-directed sci-fi adventure off its pedestal that early in the game.
During the fifth week, “Avatar” raked in $1.1 million. “Easy Money” topped it with $1.3 million. To put it in perspective, “Avatar” was not beaten in the box office in the U.S. until Week 8.
“You only get to beat James Cameron once in a lifetime,” Espinosa, 34, told me during an interview to talk about his first American film “Safe House,” which stars Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. “It was a great feeling.”
Along with beating “Avatar,” “Easy Money” hit peoples’ radars when it screened at the Berlin Film Festival. There, American studios quickly noticed Espinosa had the talent it would take to be a successful Hollywood director. Based on his work on “Easy Money,” he was given the opportunity to direct “Safe House,” a crime thriller that follows a fugitive (Washington) and a CIA agent (Reynolds) on the run when their safe house is attacked in South Africa.
During our interview, Espinosa, who is half Swedish and half Chilean, talked about how it feels as a director to have seemingly unlimited amounts of money to make an American film and why he’s not looking to move from his home country of Sweden to Hollywood anytime soon.
Other than the fact you beat James Cameron at the box office, why do you think you – a filmmaker unknown to U.S. audiences – were given the opportunity to direct a major project like “Safe House?”
I think they were looking for a different voice. When you get a filmmaker that comes from another part of the world, sometimes we can create movies with different rhythms and different ways of looking at things. It was a pleasure to make this kind of movie, but it was equally terrifying.
What did you learn about Hollywood you didn’t know before?
In Europe, a director works with the idea that they don’t have enough money. You have to find creative ways to compromise the solution. InAmerica, you have enough money to get all the shots you need. You have all the money you want. It’s almost like a dilemma. How can you be creative when everything is possible?
As the director, how much input did you have in casting for the film and what was going through your head when a name like Denzel Washington is mentioned as a possible star?
When I came on as director, there was no one attached to the movie. I read the script and talked to one of the producers and said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is I know who I want to get for this movie. The bad news is, I’m going to ask you to get him knowing we probably can’t get him.” He asked me who and I said, “Denzel Washington.” He just smiled and walked away. I had no idea what to think of that smile. One week later I was sitting with Denzel Washington having a conversation. (Laughs) It was very absurd.
He is such an esteemed actor. He’s a person I’ve always looked up to and studied. Many times, I have sat with actors to discuss the work we’d be doing together. It was strange to sit with someone who is the real deal and have a discussion with him about acting and character.
Do you have any plans to move from Sweden to Hollywood to continue your career as a director?
I live in a great neighborhood in Sweden, so I want to do everything I can to stay. As a director, you don’t have to move. We can read scripts from afar. If I read another great script from Hollywood, I will go back. If I read one that’s from France or Germany, I will go there. For me it’s about the story, not the circumstance.