Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Spy in the Cinematic House of Peril: Nobody is Safe

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds hit the road in Safe House

If you’re looking for a current movie about clandestine government operatives who betray their brethren, go see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If you’re looking for a current movie about clandestine government operatives who betray their brethren starring Denzel Washington, Safe House is your best bet at the moment – though not necessarily one that will stick with you beyond that juncture. The former thriller, adapted from a 1974 John le Carre novel, keeps its bloodshed to a minimum and adheres to the great British tradition of allowing tension to build under an otherwise laconic surface. The latter film revels in splatter, ramping up dastardly deeds with typical Hollywood adrenaline.

Washington employs his usual charisma and clever thespian chops as Tobin Frost, a CIA agent gone rogue for the past decade. The question is whether or not he’s really a sociopath, like the corrupt cop the actor essayed in Training Day (2001). When his Safe House antihero gets a chip containing a hush-hush file, he injects the damn thing under his skin to escape detection before beginning a 115-minute chase scene. There are actually numerous chase scenes, but the unrelenting action becomes a big blur. Frost is targeted by a seemingly never-ending supply of generic mercenaries so downright evil that the story almost veers into horror-flick territory, in which a monstrous entity continually rises from the dead. There’s one chief bad guy in particular (Fares Fares, a name so nice he uses it twice) who I thought had at least a dozen bullets pumped into him, yet the thug manages to pop up unscathed in the final denouement.

Joel Kinnaman in AMC's The Killing
The most individualized villain is Keller (Joel Kinnaman, a devilishly ambiguous detective in AMC's The Killing last season), whose brief but serpentine performance near the end gives Safe House a much-needed je ne sais quoi. You can’t take your eyes off him, a quality he shares with the equally lanky and enigmatic Michiel Huisman, a junkie musician on HBO’s Treme. In fact, Kinnaman should have been cast as the second banana to Washington: a youngster named Matt Weston. The role instead was granted to the far less interesting Ryan Reynolds. He’s a novice spy assigned to a boring job, as overseer of the sprawling Cape Town apartment that the CIA has retrofitted as a detention center should dangerous suspects surface in the South African city. Nothing ever happens in this ominous and supposedly secure pad, however, until suddenly it does.

In a nod to the Brits, a disillusioned MI6 agent (Liam Cunningham) hands Frost the aforementioned chip in order to expose some damning information. We only learn the nature of this evidence later, even though the secrets are by then quite obvious. The espionage is not terribly imaginative here. To flee the unyielding assassins, he turns himself in at the U.S. consulate and is then transported to the titular place where Matt will witness his first, ahem, enhanced interrogation. The rookie asks someone if the waterboarding is legal. This torture is in the capable hands of Robert Patrick, the murderous machine T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and the FBI’s John Doggett in 40 episodes of The X-Files (2000-2002).

Unlike the nefarious bosses in the Bourne franchise, Matt (Is this an homage to Damon, perchance?) has CIA superiors back at Langley headquarters that are devoid of distinct personalities: Barlow (Brendan Gleeson, in what may be his least compelling part in recent memory), Whitfield (an expressionless Sam Shepard) and Linklater (a wasted Vera Farmiga). She’s one of two throwaway females in Safe House; the other is Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau, Matt’s stunning French girlfriend who has no clue that he’s a spook. By the time her lover’s on the run, first pursuing then protecting Frost, their relationship has also become a victim of international intrigue. 
Ruben Blades in Safe House

Washington isn’t the sole worthy focal point of this picture. The vastly underutilized and under-appreciated Ruben Blades, as Frost’s still loyal old ally living in a shanty-filled township, has a cameo that just about steals the show. When these two veterans are together on the big screen, the script by David Guggenheim (not to be confused with documentarian Davis Guggenheim) is momentarily elevated from the cliches that precede and follow the sequence. (Who wants to hear yet another utterance of the term “go off the reservation”?) But formula is what Swedish director Daniel Espinosa apparently had in mind for his English-language debut; both Kinnaman and Fares appeared in Snabba Cash (Easy Money), his 2010 Scandinavian drama about drugs and organized crime.

In a plethora of recent releases –  Unstoppable and The Book of Eli (2010), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Deja Vu (2006) and Man on Fire (2004) – Washington has been doing the seasoned savior routine. All but Eli were under the direction of Tony Scott, with whom he has collaborated on five blockbusters. It might be good for his career to now and then select more idiosyncratic characters again, such as those in The Hurricane and The Bone Collector (1999), or in almost any Spike Lee “joint.” Many Denzel fans would be glad to see him return to the calibre of, say, Malcolm X (1992). He’s a luminous presence who simply must go off the reservation and avoid always playing it safe.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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