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.