Friday, February 10, 2012

Burning Down the House: SAFE HOUSE

Safe House is a generic studio thriller on a preordained course to exactly where you think it’s going. That it managed to hold my attention for as long as it did is some small miracle. It’s a trust-no-one spy movie shot in quick cut chaos style with the kind of grainy, high-contrast look that’s become the stylistic shorthand for post-9/11 thrillers. There are few surprises to be found within but director Daniel Espinosa is smart to lean on his overqualified cast of character actors to carry out the clichéd plotting in David Guggenheim’s script and to allow Denzel Washington to use his considerable charisma to anchor it all. It’s a wholly forgettable experience, but at least it managed to hold my attention for most of the way through until it just fizzles out about two-thirds of the way in.

The film starts with rookie CIA officer Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) house-sitting a secure location in South Africa. It has seen nothing of interest, indeed not a single person, in the twelve months he’s been stationed there. When rouge agent Tobin Frost (Washington) is brought in for questioning, the excitement comes in greater quantities than the rookie could have ever expected. A small group of heavily armed, villainous men shoot their way in and almost catch Frost. But Frost talks the rookie into fleeing. The captive seems awfully calm about all this, even when Weston asks him to get into the trunk of the car. The younger man is under the impression that he is taking a dangerous captive to his superiors. The rouge master spy sure seems to be getting his way, though.

On the run from these unknown attackers and trying to coordinate with the CIA, Weston and Frost have an antagonistic partnership in which only one man really seems in control, even when he’s unarmed and handcuffed. Washington exudes a twinkling confidence and a gravity of intention that makes the early parts of the film a mostly competent diversion. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it proves that, done well enough, the old tropes can be used to fine effect now and then. Reynolds mostly stands by and lets Washington dominate each and every scene, but he manages to hold his own. After unmitigated disasters of starring roles in the likes of Green Lantern and The Change-Up, it’s nice to see Reynolds sink back into an ensemble for a film that’s just barely north of mediocre.

The movie’s about men pointing guns, cars going fast, and intense phone calls in shadowy Langley conference rooms. Back at CIA headquarters we have the prickly Brendan Gleeson, the soulful Vera Farmiga, and the grizzled Sam Shepard talking strategy and ordering underlings around while they contemplate how to put an end to this situation. It goes without saying that they aren’t all on the same page and, in a page right out of the Bourne playbook, there’s a sense that they might not all be playing for the same team or with the same rules. If you’d guess that there’s going to be some ulterior motives to be revealed towards the climax, I’d say you must have seen a lot of the same thrillers that I have.

My early tolerance for the brisk, efficient action, including a decent car chase, turned into dismay over the lifeless confrontations that follow. By final few fight scenes I could rarely make heads or tails of the action. Instead of grooving with a visceral abstract chaos, the filmmakers just threw up blurriness and hoped the Foley artists did their job well enough. Weston, clutching a gun, edges around a corner. So does Frost. So do some bad guys. Where are they in relationship to each other? Who is about to encounter whom? Who knows?

As the double-crosses fall into place and the movie zigs and zags its way to where I figured it was headed all along, my interest fell off. When the true villain is revealed, I practically shrugged. When crucial, damaging information about the intelligence community may or may not be leaked, I found myself without a rooting interest one way or the other. As the plot tries to thicken, it just gets thinner and thinner. I found myself without a reason to care. I found myself wondering why the setting of the climax is given so many intermittently loud buzzing flies, which made me think of Emily Dickinson. I looked up the poem when I got home. “I heard a fly buzz when I died / The stillness round my form / Was like the stillness in the air / Between the heaves of storm...” When you’re sitting in a dark theater watching a dumb thriller of low ambition and find yourself thinking more about recalling a poem than the action on screen, you know the movie has lost you completely.

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