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The actual review
Safe House’s premise is an interesting one: The highest levels of international intelligence, and therefore their governing bodies, are diseased and corrupt. These organizations are populated with rogue individuals, often missing in action for years, ratting out fellow spies, reporting to no one while still drawing a paycheck.
It’s a paranoia-inducing premise, and it’s a flashback to 1970s-era filmmaking that called into question the legitimacy the American government, especially. Flicks like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men spawned a generation of conspiracy theorists while entertaining the crowd at the theater. Interestingly enough, Robert Redford starred in both.
But whereas Three Days and President’s Men skillfully exploited blasts of Watergate-era mistrust, Safe House buries that ripe-for-the-picking mistrust amidst a pile of lame car crashes, been-done-before gunfights and stumbling hand-to-hand combat. The murky nature of the CIA and its employees here is possibly lost beneath the filmmakers’ pandering to the masses via typical Hollywood chaff.
Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a CIA agent who’s slipped off the grid for a few years and has been painted as a traitor. He’s found out some heavy-duty dirt on some of the CIA’s top command, and intends to blow the proverbial whistle, although we don’t find this out until later.
Washington turns himself in at the American Embassy in Cape Town, South Africa, and is immediately transferred to a CIA “safe house,” really an interrogation/holding facility for dangerous dudes that is made to look like a normal office or residence.
Apparently, when you first are first hired into the CIA, you’re not immediately thrust into hard-core espionage. The cloak-and-dagger stuff has to wait until you can prove yourself. You do that, this film implies, by entering the spy ranks as the curator of one of these safe houses, that are apparently everywhere. Maybe the many “foreclosure” houses in my neighborhood in Joliet aren’t really abandoned, maybe they’re CIA safe houses? I’d better watch it next time my dog has a bowel movement in one of these houses’ parkways — I could wind up in the end zone of Joliet West High School, a la Jimmy Hoffa.
Back to the screen. The downtown Cape Town safe house is guarded by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a bored, lower-rung CIA employee looking to earn his stripes so he can graduate to the “adult” spy stuff. Enter Frost. We’re given a fine primer on waterboarding here, with a preachy Frost telling his interrogators how to carry out that fine torture procedure.
Shortly after the torture, Frost is evicted from the luxurious Cape Town safe house by fellow bungling CIA agents who fail to prevent Frost’s kidnapping by another agency. The rest of the film is a top-speed mishmash of senseless gunplay, with the relationship pendulum between Weston and Frost swinging from foe to ally.
The filmmakers paint Cape Town as a colorful mix of well-to-do urban cityscapes and gritty poverty. I don’t recall any other movies filmed here, but parts of it look beautiful. Meanwhile, CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., is cinematically portrayed as a huge, monolithic structure populated by squirrely white people.
We’re treated here to a brief performance by singer/actor Reuben Blades (he plays Carlos Villar), who made headlines in 1994 when he ran for the presidency of Panama. Of course he’s gunned down here, as is most everyone, but his appearance as a forger is memorable but short.
Safe House does leave us with a few questions. Are rogue agents that are still on the CIA payroll floating around the world unsupervised? A neighbor of mine certainly has a lot of time on his hands. Is he an operative? Or just unemployed? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a spy and someone out of work.
“I want everything you can find on Tobin Frost” — Catherine Linklater (played by Vera Farmiga).
“This man without question is one of the most notorious traitors we’ve got” — David Barlow (played by Brendon Gleeson).
“”Do your duty, son. Do you want to be the guy that lost Tobin Frost?” — Tobin Frost.
“They’re all dead. The safe house has been breached” — Matt Weston in a phone call to CIA headquarters.
“She’s not going to leave you, Matthew. You’re going to leave her” — Frost to Weston, on spy/civilian relationships.
“I only kill professionals” — Frost to Weston, remarking on the latter’s incompetence.
“People don’t change. They grow old — and some of us adapt” — Carlos Villar
Other observations at the moviehouse:
- I’ve viewed the preview for 21 Jump Street three times now, but this is the first time I’ve seen fellow theater attendees laugh out loud at it. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star in this bumbling cop buddy flick. The preview was amusing the first time I saw it.
- Director Ridley Scott is bringing us some kind of outer space flick featuring a giant spaceship. There was no dialogue in the preview, but based on the explosions and gunplay, I’m guessing it’s nothing like the recent stylishly silent film The Artist. The Artist played at the Louis Joliet Cinemark for one long week, by the way.
- The people marketing Project X, which promises to be the Citizen Kane of high school party movies, added some more off-color humor to the former’s preview this week, in the form of a fellatio/midget joke. I’m sure wherever he is, Kane’s Orson Welles is laughing his head off at this comparison.
- The Bourne Legacy’s preview makes no mention of Matt Damon, and in fact features Jeremy Renner as the lead actor. Damon must be busy out making We Bought a Planetarium, the otherworldly sequel to his recent sleeper We Bought a Zoo.
- From my notes: “Aircraft carriers hot women weird aliens = Battleship.” Yes, loosely based on the childrens’ board game. But I bet you won’t need a finely placed B-15 to sink this clunker.