Julian Assange just came: “Safe House”

March 5, 2012

Man, the movie selection back in the US must truly suck if a derivative piece of crap like Safe House is consistently winning the weekend. Oh, did I tip my hand there? Yeah, I didn’t like Safe House much. I can kinda see why it’s been doing well at the box office, though. It’s got two big stars (can we consider Ryan Reynolds a star even if his movies consistently underperform? I guess so), and it has the look of a serious, intelligent thriller. The reality, however, is that it’s a derivative, not-terribly-bright Bourne Identity clone that mostly just goes through the motions. Plus it’s really hard to tell what the hell is going on in any given scene. That was pretty annoying.

From a plot standpoint, Safe House is on safe ground (heh heh): it’s basic and reliable. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a low-level CIA operative in charge of managing an unused safe house in Johannesburg.  Naturally, he’s champing at the bit to get a more substantive assignment, and when we meet him he’s just been turned down for a slot in Paris (which doesn’t sound like it’d be all that career-enhancing, since Europe hasn’t been an espionage center since, oh, 1980).

Plus he’s got something going on with a French chick there, but she’s kind of boring, so who cares?

Anyway, Matt’s fortunes change after a notorious CIA turncoat named Tobin Frost gives himself at the US Consulate in Jo-burg. Well, naturally the CIA goes apeshit, and sends an interrogation team, who transport Frost from the Consulate to the safe house. Wow! Weston finally has something to do! Yeah, unfortunately, no sooner do they start waterboarding Frost, than a heavily-armed assault team hits the safe house and wipes out everybody except Weston and Frost, who promptly beat feet.

Of course, somehow the CIA’s security has been compromised, leaving Weston adrift and unsure of who to trust (hint, you probably can’t go wrong trusting the Oscar winner).  This means we have to suffer through a lot of tired back-and-forth between Frost and Weston, in which Frost tries to manipulate Weston’s head, and Weston shouts, “Shut up! Lemme think!” a lot. Naturally, there’s never really any suspense to these scenes, since we know that the climax of this movie will have Weston and Frost fighting side by side. I mean, is there really any doubt of that?

Okay, so some crap happens. Weston loses Frost for a while, then picks him up again. They get shot at by the bad guys. Frost hooks up with a buddy of his living in the slums outside the city, who, uh…this doesn’t actually pay off except to allow the bad guys and Weston to find him. Well, it all ends in a remote safe house in the middle of nowhere and staffed by Joel Kinnaman (last seen ebonicking his way through Russia in The Darkest Hour), where Weston stashes Frost and waits for the cavalry to show.

So, you know where this going, right? A bunch of black helicopters descend from the heavens and take Frost away to be interrogated through non-coercive techniques, which allow US law enforcement to smash various terrorist networks  and safeguard burgeoning democracies in the Middle East. Ha! Of course not. I mean, this is the CIA we’re talking about here. No, turns out they’re trying to kill Frost because he has a  computer file with evidence of all the corrupt stuff the CIA and every other intelligence service has done. So, first Kinnaman tries to kill Weston, then the hit squad shows up led by Weston’s mentor. But Frost is apparently Rambo and takes them all out. Then Weston’s mentor kills Frost. Then Weston kills him. Yeah, the end shootout only works because every character seems to forget that every other character that is trying to kill them has a gun. So there is a lot of “I’ll just stand right here, and…” BLAM! “Whoa! Where did you get that Sig? Oh yeah, we were just shooting at each other. Ha. Silly me…”

The biggest problem with Safe House is that the plot is a foregone conclusion: the CIA is trying to shut Frost up. And why would we think otherwise? As I’ve pointed out, Frost is a renegade loner played by Denzel Washington, while the people giving Weston orders are your typical CIA functionaries played by Brendan Gleeson and a weird-headed Vera Farmiga (no, seriously, her head looks weird in this movie. I’ve seen her in other stuff, and her head has never been that oblong…did she have bad hair ‘do, or…what could cause that?) If Hollywood has taught us anything it’s that the maverick loner is always right and the suits are always wrong. So, yeah, from moment one we know where this is going.

This is ground well-trod by the Bourne movies, and yeah, two of the three (to date) movies in that series had Jason Bourne running from his own people. But those movies had the expanding theme of what happens when clandestine operations run unfettered and become paranoid and corrupt due to their own overreach. Joan Allen’s character was always meant as a corrective to the Chris Coopers and Brian Coxes. Safe House simply assumes off the bat that the CIA is corrupt as an institution, and basically exists to be corrupt. Consequently, when the pieces fall into place, there is no drama. No sting of betrayal. One wonders why Weston could have ever believed otherwise. One could interpret this as a scathing indictment of the US intelligence culture, but if we buy that, then why bother trying to wring any suspense out it? No, this is just lazy storytelling.

Additionally—and this is critical—this movie has no worldview beyond “CIA is bad.” Frost is supposedly a turncoat who went rogue nine years earlier, and thus, is a high-value target. But…nine years? How much fresh intel could this guy have to give? And no mention is made of what the CIA is supposed to be protecting us against. There is no mention of the war on terror or any other reason for the CIA to exist except to kill its own people and be corrupt.

Know what else is lazy about this film? A lot. For starters, it adheres to the action-movie maxim “what does not kill you does not affect you.” Weston has a gun go off an inch from his ear, has a leg taken out from under him by a nightstick, even suffers a stab wound that bleeds so profusely that he passes out from blood loss, but doesn’t lose his hearing, ability to walk or, well, life despite never receiving medical attention!  In other scenes, Weston hides his identity by pulling his hood up no matter where he is. Isn’t this kinda suspicious? Especially when you’re indoors? Since when did the hoodie become a cloaking device?

Finally, director Daniel Espinoza lets his style get the better of him. His hand-held camera work gives some immediacy in static scenes, but any time the action starts, things get unintelligible quick. In one sequence, Weston and Frost are fighting in two different rooms at the same time. One is dank, and lit with sallow yellows. The other is blasted with white light through a window. The effect is that these fights—going on simultaneously—seem to be taking place at two different times of day.

Finally, the big payoff is that all the world’s clandestine agencies are exposed…but as what? What is the corruption here? Is it bribes? Murder? What did they do? The movie never says. It just assumes we’ll understand that these agencies are evil and do no good. Look, I’m no apologist for abuses of power, but you have to be more specific than that. As it is, this movie makes sense only to the extremely paranoid or to the most adamant WikiLeaks apologists.

So, that’s what’s wrong with Safe House: you’ve seen this all done before and done better. It also begs the question: does the CIA ever hunt anybody other than their own people? No wonder it took ten years to get Osama bin Laden.


  1. This movie was so boring that I fell asleep during the middle of it. I don’t think I missed anything.

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