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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 1, 2014

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Readers Blog: Second Take

"Safe House" delivers on action, predictable outcomes

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Denzel Washington seems to have perfected the art of playing the “hardened and cynical mentor with an aversion to authority” foil to earnest, pretty boy recruits. Rookies who still believe in a clear-cut system of right but wrong, but probably won’t by the end of the movie (i.e., TRAINING DAY or UNSTOPPABLE). Washington expertly slips into this role again in SAFE HOUSE, which I caught on DVD last night.

The pretty boy this time is CIA junior case manager Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds) frustrated with a dead-end placement at a covert holding unit in South Africa that never requires him to do more than throw a tennis ball off the wall to himself. Weston knows he is worthy for promotion, but is encountering the same catch-22 that many young graduates and peers of mine are running into. To get a job you need experience, but to get that necessary experience you first need a job. The world is a twisted place.  

Weston continues playing catch with himself until Tobin Frost (Washington), the CIA’s most notorious rogue agent who’s suspected of selling secrets for the past decade, seeks asylum at the U.S. consulate in South Africa and is transferred to Matt’s safe house. Frost is being hunted by a no-nonsense group of unnamed mercenaries presumably hired to retrieve a sensitive file that Frost is carrying, and wouldn’t you know, the safe house proves to be anything but.

The path this movie takes has been trodden many times before, but SAFE HOUSE treads it with intelligence, style, and a surprising amount of grit and visceral impact. It would be a welcome change of pace if for once – and I could say “spoiler alert” here but this revelation becomes unavoidable once the movie hits its stride – high-powered CIA operatives weren’t drenched in corruption and ulterior motives. I want to see the movie where intelligence agency bigwigs actually turn out to be decent human beings. SAFE HOUSE plays its safe indeed, and ties the resolution of its conflicts to current widespread cynicism of shady government activity. A worthwhile lesson for sure, but a stale one.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t a fun time getting to the predictable ending. The real pleasure here is watching Washington play a role that must have down to an exact science at this point. The man has swagger and confidence oozing from his eyelids, and its entirely convincing when he calmly maintains the upper hand during an interrogation with his legs crossed as if he’s sipping wine at a dinner party, or when he begins to play mind games with Weston. I need to get this guy to negotiate my next employment contract. He clearly has been around the block of situations like this millions of times. We know it, and Weston knows it. So is he trying to save his own skin by telling Matt the whole thing is an inside job? Or is it the truth, and does he really desire Matt’s help getting to the bottom of things? These things remain enjoyably unclear for a good part of the movie and along with a number of other question marks, drive the story forward at a strong and consistently entertaining pace.

There’s a satisfying level of nuance to Washington’s performance. He toys with Weston in obvious ways but through his manipulation, expressions of fondness and mutual understanding can be momentarily glimpsed. Reynolds does a fine job holding his own against Washington’s sometimes overpowering screen presence, and we are gifted with a couple of obligatory shots of him without a shirt on – thanks, studio executives! It’s hard to believe Reynolds’ abdominal muscles couldn’t take out all the baddies on their own.

Although this is a movie that appears to draw heavily from the BOURNE franchise – I’m convinced the CIA command room is the same set – a stellar supporting cast and a number of exciting action sequences and plot turns salvage it from being completely uninspired and formulaic. While I wished it to be more politically complex towards the end, it is a worthy addition to the spy-action genre. 

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