Safe House


Safe House

Denzel Washington is having a Morgan Freeman moment.

(2012) Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Fares Fares, Liam Cunningham, Nora Arnezeder, Joel Kinnaman, Ruben Blades, Jenna Dover, Stephen Rider, Tracie Thoms, Sara Arrington. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Some people are just naturally badasses. Take Chuck Norris for example. He’d kick you in the tush just as soon as look at you. Or how about Jet Li. Not only can he out-fight you, he can out-think you as well.

Tobin Frost (Washington) is a lot like that. He’s a legend in the CIA – a master manipulator, a world-class assassin and one of the guys you’re thankful is on our side. Except he isn’t on our side anymore. He left the Company and has spent the past 15 years selling our secrets to anyone who’ll buy them.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) wants to go places in the CIA but he’s stuck staring at four walls all day as the housekeeper for a CIA safe house in Cape Town. He spends most of his days making love to his girlfriend (Arnezeder) and lying to her about what he really does for a living, and nagging his handler David Barlow (Gleeson) about getting a field position which is what he really wants to do.

So when a team led by the gravelly Daniel Kiefer (Patrick) comes in bearing Frost, one of the most wanted men in the world, Weston is understandably surprised. He is even more surprised when a well-armed hit team led by the ruthless Vargas (Fares) blows in their doors and proceeds to execute everyone in the House – with the exception of Weston and Frost who have fled.

On the run with nowhere safe to go, Weston calls his superiors back at the CIA. Barlow knows that Weston is above reproach but Analyst Catherine Linklater (Farmiga) has her suspicions. Deputy Chief Harlan Whitford (Shepard) isn’t sure who to trust but seems to be giving Weston the benefit of the doubt.

Alone with one of the most dangerous men on Earth, chased by unknown assassins who want him dead and unable to trust the CIA since there had to be a leak that gave the Safe House away, Weston must figure out what’s going on, what secrets Frost is carrying with him that so many people want him dead and how to get out of this cluster fu…um, mess alive.

Frost is a part tailor-made for Denzel. He’s smart, he’s super-cool as well as super-bad, and enigmatic. He’s not the most likable guy you’ll ever meet but he is also disillusioned by some of the horrible things he has to do. To my mind, this is his best work since American Gangster – and not coincidentally, the most fleshed-out part he’s had since then.

Reynolds, known for being a touch on the light side, actually holds his own here which is a bit of surprise. This is really his first all-dramatic role (even his action hero roles have a comedic element to them) and he holds his own with one of the best actors of his generation. That’s a pretty impressive feat and watching this movie I really am re-assessing my opinion of Reynolds’ range and consequently the potential longevity of his career. This is not a star-making role for him so much as a star-potential declaration role. He is one role away from becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Espinosa, despite his Latin name, is actually Swedish and he has been one of those directors that is much better-known by studio people than by the American moviegoing public (although he is well-acclaimed in Sweden where he has a couple of highly regarded action films under his belt). He pulls off the action sequences very nicely, particularly a thrilling car chase through Cape Town and a rooftop chase through one of the ghettos of Cape Town.

With all this going for it, this should have been a big summer blockbuster but the reason that it’s sitting here in February is simply because the story isn’t anything to write home about. It’s all about deception and lies in the CIA with double and triple-crosses galore, every one of them telegraphed a mile off. It doesn’t keep you on your toes with its twists and turns so much as keep you on a familiar mountain road.

This isn’t a bad movie, don’t get me wrong – it’s just fairly predictable. It does what it does nicely without really taxing too much of your grey matter and there are some visceral thrills not to mention the opportunity to see one of the very best doing what he does best. For the record, I think this is an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours at the movies – which may sound damned by faint praise but to my mind is a pretty decent compliment.

REASONS TO GO: Washington is at the top of his game and Reynolds surprisingly keeps up. Some nicely done action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is pretty rote and doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally set in Rio de Janeiro but was switched to South Africa for security concerns.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Identity

CHAMELEON DENZEL LOVERS: The actor adopts a Spike Lee look for some of the film and a clean-shaven look harkening back to “St. Elsewhere” for other parts of the movie, and even a bit of American Gangster thrown in.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Green Mile

Traitor


Traitor

Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels are moving at cross purposes.

(Overture) Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Alvy Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Raad Rawi. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Our government uses the term “war on terror” despite the fact that from its outer trappings, its not so much a war as it is a guerilla action. In this fight, boundaries blur and it is not always possible to tell who is innocent and who is not. In the war on terror, the casualties are not always easily apparent.

Samir (Cheadle), as a young boy, saw his father killed in the explosion of a car bomb (who set the bomb and why is never explained in the film). As an adult, we see him in Yemen, attempting to sell plastic explosives to a terrorist group. When that group is captured by the Yemeni police, Samir is thrown in a Yemeni prison along with Omar (Taghmaoui), a high-ranking soldier in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Samir is questioned by Agents Clayton (Pearce) and Archer (McDonough) of the FBI. They’re anxious to make a deal with the soft-spoken, highly intelligent Samir but he demurs. They basically throw up their hands and leave him in prison to rot.

In prison, Samir and Omar develop a bond as Omar witnesses Samir’s devotion to Allah and when the Brotherhood stage an escape for Omar, he takes Samir with him. They flea to Marseilles, where the former army demolition expert Samir helps develop a remote-controlled device to use to detonate a bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Nice. Eight people are killed in the explosion, the news of which apparently disturbs Samir – he had been hoping for a higher body count, he tells Fareed Mansour (Khan), their Pakistani handler.

As it turns out, Samir had been hoping for a certain body count that had been lower – the bodies had been planted at the Embassy by security advisor Carter (Daniels), who was Samir’s real handler. Samir is actually an undercover agent looking to get to Nathir (Rawi), one of the highest ranking terrorists in the world. He is also trying to find out what large-scale operation the Brotherhood has in mind on American soil.

But is Samir really an American operative, or does he have his own agenda? Time is running out; the operation is taking place soon, Samir is wanted by police organizations world wide for his part in the embassy bombing and Clayton and Archer are closing in. Who will protect the innocent when the lines are so very blurred?

Director Nachmanoff has delivered a taut, well-paced thriller that keeps you guessing as to Samir’s loyalties despite the fact that they tell you he is working for Carter early on. The fact that you’re never quite sure whose side he’s working on til near the end is a tribute to Cheadle the actor, and his performance is the primary reason to seek this movie out.

Everything in this movie is about motivation and the fact that the motivation for so much is unclear. What drives Samir – be it the boyhood tragedy we see in the first frames or the prejudice he encountered in America – is never fully explained. The audience is left to draw their own conclusions, mostly from Samir’s actions.

Other than those playing FBI agents, the driving forces behind the characters remain foggy in them as well, particularly the Muslim characters. The exception is Omar, who seems to be simply driven by the convictions of his faith. Omar doesn’t hate the Americans he wants to kill so badly; he is merely a soldier in a jihad doing Allah’s will. If those he follows tell him it is Americans he must kill, then so be it.

The movie travels from location to location with dizzying speed (done on a relatively modest budget so kudos to the producers) and keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. While the scenes taking place in the Middle East are vivid with color, there is a grainy, washed out aspect to the scenes taking place in Europe and North America I found intriguing. I’m not sure what the filmmakers intention was in terms of message – it could well have been that the weather was bad while they were shooting on location. It is a bit annoying, at least to my sensibilities.

There is an authenticity to the movie – Nachmanoff, who also co-wrote the movie, consulted with several intelligence community professionals to try and get the procedural and political aspects right and this pays off. He also succeeds in humanizing terrorism, putting a face on what we sometimes tend to characterize as mindless fanatics. While there is certainly fanaticism within the radical jihadist movement, these are also human beings with an agenda, a plan to achieve it and the patience to see it through – patience from an unshakable belief that God is on their side.

While there are several twists and turns that I thought a bit too unnecessary (the last one regarding Carter is a particularly hoary cliché and could have been excised from the movie), this is still worth giving a look to. After all, in the war on terror the ultimate casualty has been the truth.

WHY RENT THIS: Cheadle’s performance is rock-solid, as is Guy Pearce’s. A very different look at the war on terror and its (unintended) casualties. A nicely-paced, taut thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Needlessly twisty, plot-wise. Much of the movie looks grainy and washed out, particularly when the setting is in Europe and North America.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very violent imagery and raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be made by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, but after a management change there the property was dropped, allowing Cheadle to take it to Overture Films, the big screen subsidiary of the Starz premium cable channel..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Simpsons Movie