With the Academy Awards just around the corner (Feb. 26), we can prepare ourselves for some rather lean pickings at the theaters for a while. All of the big films of last year have been released for Oscar consideration, and so we’re stuck with movies like “Safe House,” a mediocre (at best) action thriller starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.
Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a CIA member who is assigned the duty of overseeing a safe house in Cape Town. Matt hates his job because the house of which he is in charge sees no guests. Thus Matt’s days consist of answering the phone every so often and playing catch with himself by sitting on the floor and bouncing a ball off a wall. Yes, Matt is extremely bored, but all that changes when Tobin Frost (Washington) is brought to his house for safekeeping.
Before turning rogue 10 years ago, Frost was one of the CIA’s best ops men, but he has been on the agency’s most-wanted list for selling vital information to the enemy and revealing military secrets to North Korea. When the CIA finally captures Frost after pursuing him for a decade, he is taken to Matt’s safe house, where all hell soon breaks loose.
While Frost is being intensely interrogated, some mercenaries attack the house and turn it into a shambles. Both Matt and Frost manage to escape, and now they are forced to help each other stay alive while they attempt to learn who organized and authorized the attack.
Back in 2001, Washington won an Oscar as best actor for his role as Det. Alonzo Harris of the L.A.P.D., who spends 24 hours training a rookie cop (Ethan Hawke), in “Training Day.” After Frost and Matt go on the run, this film reminded me of that one because Frost educates Matt about the intricacies of the CIA. The insights he offers are the most interesting aspect of the movie because the action sequences are the same kinds of things we’ve seen in myriad films just like this one.
In addition to being rife with action clichés, the first half hour of “Safe House” is ridiculously confusing because much of it is shot in subdued lighting, and it is difficult to indentify who is who. In fact, a lot of the scenes in the movie occur in partial darkness making it very difficult to follow some of the characters.
The one thing the film does have going for it, however, is that Washington and Reynolds work quite well together as their respective characters constantly are trying to outwit each other and gain the upper hand. Matt wants to prove his worth as an agent to his superiors, and Frost uses every trick he knows in trying to give Matt the slip. In the film’s production notes, producer Scott Stuber offered an interesting analysis of the two characters.
“It read as a big action-thriller, but what I found interesting was the paradigm of these two characters: the veteran spy and the rookie. What we liked about Tobin Frost was that this character was multidimensional: He has many layers and a dark soul. He has given up his ideology, his country, and turned cynical because he believes the world to be cynical. He no longer plays by the rules.
“Then there’s Matt Weston, who has the ideology that the world is a good, fair place. Throughout this journey, Matt realizes that’s not the case. As you get older, you see that whatever path you choose, there are politics and things that are not fair. But do you choose to keep your soul? Do you keep your credibility and your honor? The question of the movie is whether or not Matt will be able to go through this journey and still keep his integrity and humanity.”
Of course Washington is the consummate professional, and in the production notes he explained what he did to prepare for the role of Frost and explained how he interpreted the character.
“I didn’t want to do a lot of CIA research because Tobin Frost wasn’t CIA anymore. He hated everything about the CIA, and I wanted to discover his dark side. Scott gave me some great books to read, one of which was ‘The Sociopath Next Door,’ which became my bible that I would refer to in developing the character. I felt Tobin was a sociopath. When you think ‘sociopath,’ you think violence, and the majority of sociopaths aren’t violent, but they want to win and manipulate. I thought he was a great liar, a great manipulator and perfect for the CIA.”
I thought Matt was the more interesting of the two characters because he is the on who changes because of his exposure to Frost. Reynolds provided terrific insight into his character in the production notes.
“I was fascinated by the fact that my character lives a complete lie. He’s lying to himself and wraps himself up in the flag. There’s a lot of hubris involved. He feels what he’s doing is righteous, and yet, there’s a dark, seedy underbelly to what he does-not the least of which is the fact that he lies to everyone he loves, and that takes its toll. He’s beaten up from this.
“Matt’s growth is debatable. In some ways, it’s almost a regression. Throughout the course of the film, he’s resorting to some of the same ways he’s previously despised. The audience’s concern as we’re watching is that Matt might be affected by Frost in the same way that Frost was swayed by whoever it was who caused him to go off book. One of the things that Frost does is reveal to Matt what this agency really is, how some of the black ops that it engages in are in the guise of a higher good. It affects Matt deeply, and he’s seeing how this could easily become him one day. Whether that’s growth or not, he’s definitely changed.”
Although both Washington and Reynolds were good in their respective parts, the film lacked any real originality, and much of the action was completely predictable, but there is a nice little twist at the end. “Safe House” (It gets a final score of five.) is typical of the kinds of film Hollywood releases this time of year. They are movies that offer passable escape entertainment, but you would never want to sit through them more than once. And that’s definitely a safe bet.