Desperately seeking Bourne
Safe House seems like as good a name as any for a movie with the apathetic tagline “No one is safe,” although that doesn’t quite nail the exasperated secondhand-superspy-thriller vibe. If only this thing weren’t so earnest, it might have the good self-spoofing grace to say what it really is: The Bourne I Wanna Be.
Imagine Ryan Reynolds as a dutiful but untested young CIA agent, jockeying a desk in a location so secure that his greatest professional risk is death by boredom. Then the phone rings. “Housekeeping,” he answers, sounding like a meek hotel maid. Soon enough Denzel Washington sits before him, soaking up enhanced interrogation techniques. Fancy meeting him here: formerly a CIA company man himself, now a dangerous fugitive who’s just eluded a city full of determined killers.
So determined, actually, that they break right in to the obviously no longer secure location and keep right on gunning for him. Under such peculiar duress, an unlikely partnership forms, and perhaps it’s just the test our young Reynolds needs—a jagged adventure of lethal mental and physical combat, plus mentoring! What to do but dodge and weave and hope for Washington to say, as he did to Ethan Hawke in Training Day, “This shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers!”
That’s right: Safe House is at least agile enough to seem derivative of more than one movie at a time.
Now back at home base, we find the obligatory control room full of phones and screens and furtive bureaucrats agitatedly explaining things to each other and to the audience. These people include Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga, and together they manage to arouse some real audience pity for the hapless Reynolds, here responsible for anchoring a movie that’s now officially crawling with actors who outclass him. It can’t be much consolation that they seem more stranded than he does. With Washington’s character duly described as an “expert manipulator of human assets,” it becomes clear that the same can not be said for this film’s director.
Daniel Espinosa is his name, and he seems content manipulating an atmosphere of volatility. The camera jitters. The cuts come quickly. Guns get knocked from hands, reframing fist fights as to-the-death endurance tests. And it is Bourne-like, vaguely, except less well-choreographed and less easy to care about. Plot threads about confused loyalties and eruptions of corruption are handled roughly, so as to become frayed. Deadly flying objects—bullets mostly, but also at least one motor vehicle—tend to make surprise entrances from just out of frame. Sometimes they make surprise entrances from within the frame. Anyway, it’s the surprise, and the deadliness, that matters.
Safe House has a screenwriter credit too, for David Guggenheim, but if he’s the one responsible for fleeting efforts to suggest that Washington’s character also is a wine aficionado, it’s easy to see why Espinosa might rather let action speak louder than words. This is also the sort of movie that offers an establishing shot in which the Eiffel Tower is visible, stamped with the words “Paris, France.” As if we might think we’re looking at Las Vegas. As if it would matter anyway.
Most of the commotion, however, takes place in South Africa, presumably to accommodate the cruelish joke of a shanty town rooftop chase whose flimsy roofs are prone to collapse, and the oddity of Washington’s badass oenophile babbling about Pinotage.
Courteously, the filmmakers do bracket each frenetic action set piece with a bit of breathing room. But braiding these interstitial moments together in cleverly edited nonlinear loops manages only to convey a whiff of impatience, as if downtime just isn’t interesting enough. Fair enough: In this movie, it isn’t.
The good news is that none of the performances are as condescending as this review. Reynolds huffs and puffs like a marathoner who won’t let anything keep him from his finish line. Washington, not working very hard, still has a way of doing competent work. And all those agitated bureaucrats go about their business, including a few unsurprising complications, with efficient dignity. Any worries about fallen artistic ideals are put to rest by a sense of fiduciary pragmatism—the agreeable thought of actors’ kids’ college funds getting padded. It’s good to know that someone, somewhere, is safe.