The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Safe House

Denzel Washington has been accused of giving essentially the same performance in several different films over the last few years (Unstoppable, Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3). “Saturday Night Live” has made sport of ribbing him for it this season. I don't think it's a fair accusation, though. All major stars have a well-honed persona that they fall back on from time to time; it's what makes them stars. Besides, Washington is always willing to mix it up by throwing in something really different, like a Training Day or an American Gangster. Or, for that matter, his new film Safe House. Leaving his trademark swagger behind to play a quietly assured character, the actor does some of most interesting recent work.

The story begins with an introduction to Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a low-level CIA employee whose job is answering phones and watching video monitors at a government safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He has a girlfriend to whom he's forced to lie, on account of his work needing to remain secret. He also has a boss (Brendan Gleeson) he's desperate to prove himself to. One day, a very important prisoner is brought into the safe house. Tobin Frost (Washington) is a rogue CIA agent who's been accused of turning against his country. Not long after he arrives (and is waterboarded) the safe house is attacked by people who want Frost dead. Following protocol to keep any “guest” safe, Weston manages to help him escape, with the idea that they can make it to a second safe house. Frost has other ideas.

There isn't much about Safe House that hasn't been done before. It has a plot in which two semi-adversarial guys try to get from Point A to Point B, a flash drive containing Very Important Information, and a “surprise” revelation that anyone who's ever seen an action picture will figure out in five minutes. In many respects, the film follows a well-worn formula for action movies about CIA agents/traitors.

Nevertheless, director Daniel Espinosa delivers a well-made and exciting adventure, anchored by two strong leads. The movie has a gritty, grainy look that accentuates the action. There's a heck of a car chase through the streets of Cape Town; it's one of the best I've seen in a long time. The fight sequences are very authentic looking too. Espinosa expertly stages the action while still nurturing the story's theme, which is the complete lack of trustworthiness in government intelligence agencies. Frost repeatedly tries to knock the naivety out of Weston, to make him realize that dirty secrets necessitate dirty work. Weston doesn't want to believe that. His worldview is forced to change the longer their escape mission goes on.

Both stars are very compelling in their roles. Reynolds is believable as a nervously idealistic guy who wants to impress his superiors and feels bad about lying to his girlfriend, yet he also sells Weston's competence once the you-know-what hits the fan. He plays a very realistic hero. Washington, meanwhile, goes for a minimalist performance. His Frost is a guy who knows all the angles, and therefore has a sense of centeredness that the less-seasoned Weston lacks. Speaking always in a low tone, he radiates a kind of weary acceptance, as though Frost has resigned himself to the messed-up way things are in the intelligence field. This is one of my favorite Denzel performances of the last few years.

Despite a familiar plot, the solid acting and first-rate action scenes combine to make a movie that, while perhaps not terribly original, is certainly involving and entertaining. It's also a bit smarter than many other, similar films. Safe House is violent without ever being excessive, cynical without becoming hopeless. It's an engaging adult thriller.

( out of four)

Safe House is rated R for strong violence throughout and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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