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"SAFE HOUSE"
(2012) (Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action: A CIA agent longs for something more than running an agency "safe house" and gets that when he's suddenly in charge of a renegade agent who many people want dead.
PLOT:
Matt Weston (RYAN REYNOLDS) is a young CIA agent stationed in Cape Town, South Africa where he runs one of the agency's "safe houses." He's bored there and longs for something more, and hates that he can't tell his girlfriend, Ana (NORA ARNEZEDER), what he really does. His superior, David Barlow (BRENDAN GLEESON), promises that better things will come his way, but even he doesn't realize how much things will change for Matt.

And that's because renegade CIA agent Tobin Frost (DENZEL WASHINGTON), in an effort to elude armed men who are after him, has just turned himself into the U.S. Consulate. Tobin went rogue years ago, allegedly selling important government information to the highest bidder, and the agency wants every bit of intel out of him. Accordingly, its extraction team, led by Daniel Kiefer (ROBERT PATRICK), takes Tobin to Matt's safe house and proceeds to torture him to make him talk.

Before he can spit out anything, however, armed goons breach the house and kill everyone except for Matt who manages to get Tobin out of the house before either of them joins the rest of the deceased. Barlow's associate, Catherine Linklater (VERA FARMIGA), believes that Matt is now in cahoots with Tobin, something Barlow disagrees with, while their big boss, Deputy Director Harlan Whitford (SAM SHEPARD), simply wants them to resolve the situation and make sure Tobin is brought in.

Back on the scene, Matt tries to figure out how to handle and later recapture Tobin, all while the renegade agent tries to open Matt's eyes about how the agency really works, and as both try to avoid the armed gunmen who are after them.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
There's the old saying about being careful about what one asks for because, after all, it will often come true and be accompanied by all sorts of unexpected baggage. It sort of goes hand-in-hand with the old grass is always greener parable, where one doesn't always realize the ramifications of a different sort of life they'd like to have.

That's certainly the case for Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a young CIA operative who runs a "safe house" for the agency in Cape Town, South Africa. He's been stationed there for about a year, and has seen little to no action, and thus isn't terribly pleased when his superior (Brendan Gleeson) tells him to hang on as things will eventually look up for him.

All of which leads to another old saying, this one being that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. The latter arrives in the form of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a renegade CIA operative who, as another CIA supervisor (Vera Farmiga) states, "went off the reservation" and apparently has been working for whoever pays him the most money for highly coveted secrets and information.

When Frost turns himself into the U.S. Consulate to get away from a bunch of armed goons who want to capture and/or kill him, he ends up in CIA custody. He's then taken to the aforementioned safe house for a little bit of post 9/11 style U.S. interrogation. You know, the kind that involves torture, although the lead perpetrator (Robert Patrick) was still far scarier way back when in "Terminator 2" as the flexible metal antagonist than he is here.

It's not long, however, before Reynolds' character ends up solely in charge of Washington's, and that's what makes up the bulk of the action thriller "Safe House." Pretty much a Tony Scott wannabe sort of flick (complete with lots of handheld footage, quick edits, different looking film stock and, of course, Scott regular Mr. Washington), the movie has its moments, but ultimately falls prey to the need for ever more punches to be thrown and bullets fired.

While action junkies might enjoy all of that visceral mayhem, the rest of us will probably wish that there was more cerebral interaction between the two lead characters. With Washington's being the veteran turned villain, and Ryan's the still somewhat green rookie, the story -- penned by David Guggenheim -- sort of has a "Silence of the Lambs" thing going for it, what with Frost seemingly attempting to play mind games with the younger and inexperienced, yet eager and obviously capable government agent.

Sadly, director Daniel Espinosa seemingly tires of such intellectual antics fairly quickly, and would much rather imitate the frenetic and handheld action typically found in a Tony Scott film, rather than the far more fascinating and engaging sort of material found in Jonathan Demme's masterpiece. For a while, some of that action is okay (if that's your sort of thing), but as it continues to pile up, it becomes repetitive, redundant, and ever increasingly less interesting.

It also doesn't help that it is fairly easy to figure out the plot's supposedly surprise twist of events that's revealed in the third act. Granted, that could've led the protagonist to an interesting fork in his government career and life paths, but the filmmakers spend little to no time toying with that moral dilemma notion. Instead, they focus on setting up yet another chase scene (in vehicles or on foot) or intense fight sequence.

Accordingly, we're subjected to many scenes of just that, with only a few moments that are quiet and/or filled with some sort of introspection. There's a little subplot featuring the protagonist's girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), and him having to keep his true vocation secret from her, but this never really amounts to much in terms of viewer interest (despite it apparently being present as a means to make us feel sorry for what his job is doing to him).

Like the actress playing that part, Farmiga, Gleeson and Sam Shepard aren't really given much opportunity to do anything with their characters to make them interesting, and those parts easily could've been played by lesser-known performers without any change to the viewer's perception of and/or reaction to the overall film.

If anything and despite all of the fury on the screen, "Safe House" ultimately plays it too safe and fails to do or deliver anything novel or interesting with material that's been done before and better in other pics. The film rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 7, 2012 / Posted February 10, 2012


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