Safe House

While the performance of Ryan Reynolds is particularly strong, it is difficult to give this film much more than a passing grade as so much of the action – in what purports to be an action film – is impossible to watch. There might be a film of merit somewhere within this mess of ridiculous editing and out-dated shaky-cam, but it is hard to find.

Reynolds is Matt Weston, a bored junior CIA agent in charge of minding an underutilised safe house in Cape Town, in love with his girlfriend and desperate to see some action. When rogue agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) walks into the American consulate unannounced, the CIA rapidly decides to ‘debrief’ him at a nearby safe house, and Weston just might get more action than he had hoped for.

That we are now some ten years on from the unfortunate rise in the modern trend of making action films nauseatingly unwatchable and we are still subjected to this rubbish is difficult to accept. Shaky-cam and hyperkinetic editing of action scenes aside, there is a moderately successful film that could have been made with this material. The juxtaposition of experienced agent with naif could have offered an opportunity for something more than your average CIA actioneer, and Reynold’s performance reminds the world that he is a really talented actor who is so accessible that he is incredibly easy to watch. Notwithstanding the Green Lantern misfire, he is one of the more trustworthy of Hollywood’s second tier, and Buried was simply spectacular. Washington has long been capable of bringing a depth to his action roles that makes his films more successful than they might seem on paper, and yet here their relationship – which should be the centrepiece of the film – is buried under a torrent of ridiculous cinematography and editing.

There are times when the footage is uninterpretable, with grainy, under-lit, shaky-cam sequences edited together into a children’s collage of disparate shots to make, well, a mess. When the audience must strain just to work out who is fighting whom, you can be confident the message is often not getting through. Why put those poor stunt guys and performers through the fighting and the action if you’re not going to show the audience the result of their efforts? At the risk of sounding like a broken record: film is many things, but one of its primary attributes is that it is a visual medium. If we can’t see your action we can’t appreciate the film.

There are some quieter moments in which the audience can appreciate that it is Washington and Reynolds holding a conversation, and these moments are occasionally interesting. The denouement turns on the most unlikely of character changes of heart, although this might have worked if more time had been allocated to Weston and Frost’s interactions. As it stands, the big moment falls flat as the required time spent on character that would allow it to pass just hasn’t been invested. Several sequences work well despite the way they are presented, with the crowd sequence in the initial scenes particularly standing out. The chase sequence in Langa is also fairly successful.

That Safe House could have been excellent is the real shame, and had more screen-time been spent on Weston and Frost and less on action set-pieces that generally don’t work, audiences might have seen that film. Instead, they are presented with a disappointing case of what might have been.