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Safe House: from Cape Town to Scottsville

Caper Town: Denzel Washington with backseat driver Ryan Reynolds

There’s more than a whiff of déjà vu in Safe House. With the graininess of every frame, the overuse of handheld shaky cam in the action scenes, and the presence of Denzel Washington as a hard-nosed government agent, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a Tony Scott film.

As much as Safe House feels like one of the more mediocre Washington-Scott collaborations, it was directed by Daniel Espinosa, who forms part of a new wave of Swedish talent in Hollywood. Technically competent as it is, Safe House is a tired re-tread of films that Washington and Scott have done better in the past, together and apart.

Safe House casts Washington as wily CIA rogue Tobin Frost who resurfaces in Cape Town after disappearing from the grid for a nearly a decade. He is promptly whisked off to a safe house in the Cape Town CBD for debriefing (that is, waterboarding) after he shows up on the doorstep of the US consulate.

Enter Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds), an ambitious young CIA operative who is the housekeeper for the facility. When mercenaries storm the safe house and kill the team responsible for questioning Frost, it is up to Weston to look after the dangerous traitor until they can reach the next safe house and work out who wants them dead.

Washington is an actor talented enough to bring an air of intelligence and sardonic humour to the most awkward of scripts. In Tobin Frost, he is gifted with a character that brings to mind the ambiguous moral shading of his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day. A man with the mythic proportions of Keyser Soze, Frost is spoken of in tones of hushed fear and awe by CIA agents who have heard whisperings about his career of treachery.

Ryan Reynolds as a rookie spy in Safe House

Washington’s Frost is an enigma with a dangerous mind and an imposing bearing, and the film crackles in the best of his exchanges with Reynolds. As for Reynolds, Safe House is his attempt to break decisively with the wisecracking party animals he has played for most of his career, from Van Wilder to The Green Lantern.

Reynolds doesn’t exactly have a distinguished filmography, and this film lays his limitations as an actor bare. Amiable he may be and convincing as a green agent in the early parts of the film, he can’t plumb the dark depths that his role demands as Weston starts to lose his idealism. Pitting him against Washington hardly seems fair. He is completely outclassed.

The film has a strong supporting cast that it criminally underuses, many of them bunkered down in Washington to track Frost’s rampage through Cape Town. The hulking Brendan Gleeson is Weston’s rugged handler. Vera Farmiga gets to play another one of those stern but fair-minded bosses that have become her speciality.

This time, in the guise of Captain Obvious, her character exists mostly to impart gems of exposition for slower-witted members of the audience. “He was one of the most brilliant CIA agents we had until he went rogue,” she intones like the voiceover in a trailer.

The best bits of Safe House for SA audiences are the Bourne in the RSA action sequences. Though the busy camera work is distracting — like every post-Bourne action film, Safe House thinks a violently shaking camera makes for unflinching realism — the best action scenes have a visceral punch and some propulsive motion behind them.

The real fun lies in spotting the locations where Safe House was filmed. It’s not every day that we get to see American actors tear around the streets of Woodstock in frantic car chases, or shoot up Green Point Stadium, and then, absurdly, escape on the metro train. This isn’t a postcard-perfect Cape Town either, but one that spans from pretty views of Table Mountain to the shacks of Langa and the grit of, erm, Parow.

Safe House trailer (via YouTube):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV-TJfnPwW4&feature=fvst

Safe House takes predictable material and executes it in a workman-like fashion. Long before Safe House winds its way through its turns, anyone who has ever seen a spy film will have guessed the final twist.

Curiously for a script that featured on the 2010 “black list” of the best unproduced scripts, Safe House suffers from pedestrian plotting and tin-eared dialogue. The only factors that set this generic spy-versus-spy caper apart from hundreds of others are the magnetic performance from Washington and its inventive use of Cape Town locations.  — Lance Harris, TechCentral

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