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'House' of Snooze

Dave recommends skipping Safe House, but make a comment and join him at the cinema this weekend!

Want to compare notes with me on an upcoming movie, courtesy of the Shorewood Patch? Simply leave a comment below this week’s review. The comment can just be “Comment” or something equally mundane. At the end of the week, we’ll put all the names in a hat and draw out one lucky reader, who will get the opportunity to attend a film with me next weekend! How fun is that?

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.

Quotable moments

“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.
Natalie February 21, 2012 at 02:06 PM
I don't know which is more humorous the audience's reaction to the "21 Jump Street" remake or Matt Damon making "We Bought a Planetarium. I must admit I did laugh pretty hard the first time I saw the preview for "21 Jump Street." After several previews now I find it lame and a sad example of what Hollywood has become when they have to take an awesome television show and turn it into a pallid movie remake! Are there NO original Hollywood screen writers left? What a sad state also that "Safe House" turned out to be such a snoozer... great plot, mostly excellent starring actor and yet the movie ends up being a typical Hollywood action show. They could have gone far with this plot line especially today when people are so paranoid of the government anyway. However, it would take writers with real imagination and superb actors to conceive an intense plot of intelligent mastermind conspiracies. I just don't think Hollywood has too many of those minds left.... what a shame.
Katherine Hunnicutt February 21, 2012 at 02:26 PM
I'd like to review a future movie with you.
Dave Wilson February 21, 2012 at 02:59 PM
Thanks for the comments, natalie and Katherine! Natalie, I'm with you about hollywood's lack of imagination. Safe house could have been so much better.
Alex Gordon February 21, 2012 at 09:21 PM
Besides the price of admission, do you pay for gas and tolls?
Dave Wilson February 22, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Good to hear from you, Alex! Not sure about gas and tolls ...
annivar salgado February 22, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Not sure what movie you saw Dave, but I thought Safe House was pretty good. Denzel was excellent as usual, but the big surprise here was Ryan Reynolds. In his dramatic debut, at least for me, Reynolds pulled off a terrific performance against veteran Washington. While I agree that Hollywood needs some more imaginitive screenwriters, I thought the story was well written and plausible. Government agents being used like so many pawns on a chess board, how unlikely is that? The movie had a good pace and I liked the fact that they did not become great friends in the end. And yes, the action scenes were a little over the top, but that's just par for the course these days, Safe House had a good balance of action and story to make it work. If you want more scenes of government idiocracy, backstabbing and deception, watch the republican primaries. If you are "snoozing" through this movie you need to get checked for sleep apnea.
Dave Wilson February 22, 2012 at 03:30 PM
I don't think the acting was a stretch for Denzel. It seemed like he phoned it in. And Reynolds did a nice job. I also liked that they didn't hug it out at the end, but overall, the shooting and car chases took precedence over the story. The script should have been allowed to speak for itself.
Nurslawzak February 27, 2012 at 06:59 AM
Denzel Washington, the go to guy for any lead role that requires a cop, lawyer, private detective, drug kingpin, ATF agent, investigator, CIA operative/assassin, police chief, narcotics officer, homicide detective, FBI Agent, Naval officer and now rouge agent. I can't say all his suspense/action/thriller roles are bad but his best films have been ones that don't require him to carry a gun. I see that he is also listed as executive producer on Safe House which could help explain it's mediocre. I have a theory that when actors or directors who also serve executive duties on the same project usually effect the films quality. Actors should choose one or the other. It allows for more stakeholders to have a say and give quality creative input. Otherwise, you're just surrounded by yes men.

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