A Solid Structure, by David Bax
Even though there’s already a film with the title forthcoming, Daniel Espinosa’s new action/spy thriller Safe House could just as easily have been called The Bourne Legacy. It is, in ways both good and bad, a testament to the lasting influence of Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass’ trilogy.
Ryan Reynolds plays our hero, Matt Weston, a green and low-ranking CIA field operative champing at the bit for a promotion after a quiet year spent as caretaker of a never-used agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Suddenly, his dormant skills are called into action when a rogue former CIA agent named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) turns himself in at the American Consulate and is brought to the safe house for interrogation. When the safe house is raided by unknown criminal forces, Weston takes custody of Frost and must figure out how to get him to another safe house while keeping them both from getting killed and trying to discover what inside source could have leaked the location of the original safe house in the first place. Seriously, the phrase “safe house” comes up a lot in this movie.
Despite Weston not being an assassin with amnesia, this film is notably Bourne-influenced in almost every way. The grainy, handheld photography; the chaotic hand-to-hand combat; the foreign locales; the crunching, breakneck car chases. And the similarities are not just aesthetic. The existence of possibly sinister government forces and the juxtaposition between their conference room scheming and Weston’s visceral fight for survival echoes the trademarks of Bourne. Swap Joan Allen for Vera Farmiga and Brian Cox for Brendan Gleeson and you’ve got Safe House.
Yet Espinosa, even with his seemingly lazy reliance on an existing blueprint for action and espionage, has made an unexpectedly serious-minded film. Reynold’s alpha male build and specialized training notwithstanding, Weston is an effective stand-in for the modern American worker, faced with the possibility of being stuck in the same career position for many years to come but being hungry for a move up the ladder, all the while too wary of the current economy to leave her or his job behind. A position in the workforce is no longer a guarantor of security. One cannot expect to advance as a result of seniority but must stand up and earn it. The rest of us may not have to actually have our windpipes crushed by Denzel Washington for a promotion but it can sometimes feel like we do.
In the world of people like Weston and Frost, violence is par for the course. Given that axiom plus the simple fact that this is a big action movie, it stands to reason that people are going to get killed. They certainly do. A whole lot of people die in Safe House, in fact. But Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim make the laudable choice to take death quite seriously. Matt Weston has almost certainly never killed anyone by the time this movie starts. By the end of the roughly 48 hours over which most of it takes place, that will no longer be true. That we see how this fact alone has changed him – that we are given time amidst the chaos to ponder the weight of taking a life – is this film’s greatest strength and the source of its emotional heft.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t get to have fun. The action scenes here are rousing and immediate stuff, with the bravura car chase following the initial safe house escape being a particular high point. Unfortunately, there’s a longish section in the story’s center where the violence lags and the movie suffers a bit because of it.
The mature seriousness of most of this film’s content is a commendable tactic, though it does occasionally turn overly dour. Ultimately, however, it would be hard to pinpoint the presence of any true insight. And the obligatory romance plot, between Weston and his French girlfriend, after briefly flirting with the idea of being uncompromising, eventually turns into Hollywood fluff. Frankly, it doesn’t even need to be there, given the way the tension between Reynolds and Washington simmers in an almost sexual way.
While it’s far from groundbreaking, those who are action fans will surely enjoy Safe House and many who aren’t could find themselves pleasantly surprised.