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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Safe House

SAFE HOUSE (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Daniel Espinosa, 2012
Too much, too fast. The action is too unrelenting, the script is too derivative, the cast is too good (for the material), and Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds — playing a legendary C. I. A. genius operative/turncoat (Washington), and the inexperienced Cape Town, South Africa safe house keeper guarding him (Reynolds) — aren’t that chemical a combination. (Washington overpowers his partner easily, too easily.) Still, in many ways, Safe House isn’t a disappointment. It’s simply the action movie business-as-usual.
The movie — which suggests what might happen if Training Day were filtered through Three Days of the Condor and all three Bourne films — has been done with a lot of physical expertise, on gorgeous or exciting locations in Cape Town, South Africa and environs — and with an awful lot of very good actors. In addition to Washington and Reynolds, the movie’s lineup boasts Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades and others — most playing CIA agents or employees , rogue or otherwise, thugs, hit men and Reynolds’ Parisian love interest (Nora Arnezeder), most of them involved in almost nonstop treachery and violence — a barrage of firepower and bloodshed that barely pauses for a breather, or a good line.
I didn’t dislike it. But I didn’t like it much (except for Washington), and I kept feeling that I should like it — that there was so much fuss being taken over Safe House, and so much obvious talent involved, that I was being somehow ungrateful in remaining unmoved — or in wishing that two or three of the action or chase set-pieces (say, the soccer stadium scene) had been replaced with a few more scenes devoted to character and dialogue and human interaction. A few more scenes, say, like the Langa Township interlude with Blades as an amiable counterfeiter, or like Washington‘s last moments in the second safe house.
Instead, the movie just piles on the action, shovels on the mayhem — chases, gunfights, one blam-blam after another — relying on the fact that the characters and plotlines are mostly clichés to keep us well-situated in the story. Admittedly, the clichés are classier than usual, aimed at a slightly more adult audience. Washington, for example, with his usual panache, plays a seeming bad guy Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who was once one of the Company’s ace operatives and deadliest assassins, but who turned traitor and has been out in the cold for ten years or so.
Now, suddenly (the whole movie is sudden), the stoic-faced Frost gets pulled back. Some valuable secrets, and the determined squads of hit men on his tail, drive him back into the arms of the American Embassy — and into a Cape Town safe house, where he’s bullied and waterboarded (by Robert Patrick as a brutal intelligence officer), and then left in the care of Reynolds as likable but seemingly green Matt Weston, the relatively new safe house keeper. All this is only minutes it seems, before the gang after Frost breaks into the house and wipes out everybody but Frost and Matt — triggering the chase that lasts for the rest of the movie.
It all ends in another safe house, in the midst of a vast dusty plain, a locale that made me think of Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah, and of better movies, including the Bournes.
Sucked into the whirlwind of the chase, along with Washington and Reynolds, are a fairly interesting, or at least well-cast, gallery of spies, spooks, crooks and killers. Back in the U. S., and the CIA’s home base in Langley, there’s that fine actress Vera Farmiga as dead-serious CIA branch chief Catherine Linklater, that topnotch Irish actor Brendan Gleeson as the affable case officer (and Matt’s kind of padrone), David Barlow, and that super playwright-star Sam Shepard as the cynical and self-confident deputy director of operations Harlan Whitfield. They all give pungent performances in fairly obvious parts, and so does the Cape Town crew the guys run from or into, especially Blades as the counterfeiter and Lebanese actor Fares Fares as Vargas, the implacable and murderous head of the gang dogging Frost.
But, when you’re working with material this familiar, you should have more psychology, more ingenious plot riffs, and maybe even more humor, than Safe House has to offer. It also helps to have a few characters who aren’t involved in the main plot — a few more colorful civilians or bystanders to show us that there’s a world outside of the incestuous tangle we see of spies and hit men. (I realize that even some of the archetypal spy thrillers don’t follow this advice.) Oliver Wood’s cinematography makes Cape Town a vivid presence, though the incessant hand-held camera-jiggling was, for my taste, too apparent, and too constant. (Wood shot all three Bournes, which is obviously why he was hired here.) Without the local color of the locations and the camera-work though, Safe House doesn’t  give us a real, or seemingly real, world, before blowing it all up.
There are compensations. Denzel Washington is such a camera-friendly actor — he has one of the screen’s great playful smiles — that it’s hard not to root for him, no matter what kind of character he’s playing, which is probably why he won his Oscars for impersonating a rebellious gadfly soldier (in Glory) and a bad, crooked cop (in Training Day) . It’s also probably why he spends so much time in Safe House scowling or being taciturn, gloomy and wary.

Frost is a potentially fascinating character — an ultimate rebel and sociopath, a man without any of the usual ties or allegiances who faces the world, his world, with a shrivelling contempt– but Safe House is so busy all the time staging another chase or bringing on Vargas and his gunsels, that we never really get to know him enough.

The best match in the show, acting-wise, is probably the hookup between old friends Frost and Ruben Blades’ Carlos, and that scene descends into yet another bloody melee. As for Reynolds’ Weston, his main character point seems to be that he has a sexy Parisian girlfriend.

Safe House was written by first-timer (first script to be produced, that is) David Guggenheim. And it’s a little disillusioning, that this screenplay — which could have used a few more rewrites — once won a Harris poll (before it was sold) as one of Hollywood’s best unsold scripts. (Surely, they must mean one of Hollywood’s most salable and commercially calculated unsold scripts.)

The direction, by the talented Swedish émigré Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money), is gritty, highly professional looking and fast, maybe too fast. Like the current French directors from the Luc Besson stable (Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton) who have been making recent commercially successful American action movies, Espinosa seems to have learned his lessons in big-time American action movie making well, maybe too well.

You’d never guess that Espinosa hails from the country that produced maybe the greatest dramatic movie writer-director of all time, Ingmar Bergman — along with filmmaking geniuses like Jan Troell, Victor Sjostrom and Bo Wideberg. But Espinosa can rest assured that none of those Svenska auteurs would ever have been hired to direct a movie like Safe House, even if they’d craved the gig –any more than Renoir or Ophuls or Clouzot could have been hired to direct Morel’s From Paris With Love, the one with Travolta. And Clouzot was better at action and suspense — not to mention drama and psychology — than any of the Besson boys. They should all take a look at The Wages of Fear and eat their hearts out. (On second thought, they might all condemn that masterpiece  as “too slow.“ And, in the crystal meth, jumped up rhythms of today‘s usual action movie-making, they might have a point.)

As long as we’re making ridiculous comparisons, we may as well bring up the best and most talented action movie/art filmmaker who ever lived, the great Japanese master of the samurai film, Akira Kurosawa. Recently, I’ve been re-seeing many of the sensei’s films, and I was a bit surprised to see that Seven Samurai, usually and rightly regarded as the best battle movie of all time, really doesn’t have many big action scenes (other than the raid on the bordello) before its legendary last grand series of battles — as opposed to most contemporary action movies, which tend to begin and end with violent set-pieces and to have plenty more in between. Seven Samurai has smaller flurries before the end, but Safe House seems to have a big one every ten minutes or so. (By the way, I think I can hear Daniel Espinosa yelling: “For God’s sake, I give you Seven Samurai! I give you Seven Samurai! I concede! It’s a masterpiece! Can’t you compare us to something like  The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3?”)

Seven Samurai is a little less than 3 ½ hours along and doesn’t contain a dull minute, not a dull moment. And, by the time of the last siege, when the bandits pour out their last forces on the remaining stubborn samurai and the impoverished, long-terrorized villagers who have hired them, we know those men so well, understand them so thoroughly, that every sword-cut, every piercing arrow, every drop and lash of the pelting rain, every pounding heart and held breath as the horses charge and the combatants clash and die, affects and hurts and energizes us as well. Kurosawa deeply understood the first rule of drama: Make the audience care.

In Safe House, I cared about Denzel Washington, but that was mostly because he’s Denzel Washington. I cared about Ruben Blades when they killed him, but that’s because he and Denzel figured out a good way to play their scene together. I didn’t care about much else, despite the smashing, impressive technology that‘s customary these days. And that’s why most modern action movies don’t work for me the way Kurosawa’s and Ford’s and Leone’s and Peckinpah’s all did, and do. The new movies tend to ignore the first rule of movie drama and instead, copy a few big box-office hits, throw around a lot of money, and hop along at full throttle from one massacre to another. What do they think about audiences: that we were Bourne Yesterday?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon