Supposedly it is gauche and improper for a critic of any kind to read the reviews written by other critics in their respective line of work, as it could muddy the waters of individual thought, so to speak. This practice has the ability to sway the reader’s opinion and lead to second-guessing, or even plagiarism for the reader. Call me unprofessional if you must, but I was skimming through the recent critiques of “Safe House” (after I actually saw the film, of course) and found that the reception was almost perfectly mixed; people either thought it just barely made the cut, or just fell short of earning a recommendation. But those who defended the film and even a few stragglers on the opposite side of the fence professed admiration towards the main cast, including Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga.
Sure, those are all very talented performers when they are in their element and, in most other cases, they might have been able to elevate lousy material to a level of tolerability. Rarely is there ever a moment in “Safe House” where any of these people are permitted to showcase the full extent of their acting chops, and when those moments do show up, most of them come courtesy of the untouchable Denzel Washington. But the tremendous waste of true talent is just one problem amongst the myriad other misdemeanors: the plot is derivative, the execution is humdrum, the action is lackluster, the characters are boring, the dialogue is beyond perfunctory, the visual aesthetic is drab and ugly, and it places zero chips on the table. And boy, is it instantly forgettable. In case you cannot already tell, this will be a negative review.
A bad imitation of a bad Tony Scott action flick, “Safe House” casts Washington as the notorious Tobin Frost, a name which also serves as the most memorable aspect about the movie. Tobin Frost is a cunning man who used to be employed as an agent for the CIA, but went rogue long ago and now makes a living by selling imperative secrets to America’s enemies. Having been on the lam for years now in four different continents, the man suddenly hands himself in to an American embassy after a botched transaction goes down in the South African city of Cape Town. Frost is quickly transferred over to the nearest agency safe house for questioning (and a water-boarding treatment).
This safe house in South Africa is guarded and patrolled by a rookie operative named Matt Weston (Reynolds), who is dissatisfied at his current post. He believes that he could be a valuable asset to the CIA if his superiors ever allowed him to spread his wings and take on more advanced assignments once in a while. The opportunity almost instantaneously presents itself to him when the safe house’s perimeter gets breached and ambushed by a group of terrorists, encouraging him to flee the scene with Frost. This leads to a car chase in which Denzel Washington breaks perhaps the number one rule of transportation etiquette: Never hit the driver while he’s driving!
Brendan Gleeson plays Weston’s boss who tells him no dice on the higher job position he requests, and this guy should really have a big tattoo reading “spoiler warning” across his forehead. Vera Farmiga plays a woman back at CIA headquarters who is tracking Frost and Weston’s progress as the film moves along, and she basically sums up any new developments whenever she’s onscreen. Sam Shephard’s character is...yet another uninteresting person. Other than that, the remainder of the film switches to autopilot as one chase leads to a gunfight which leads to another chase, switching back to a gunfight, and so on. Of course, there’s some mystery as to who the rebels are working for and the kind of intel that Frost has in his possession. But these additional threads are nothing too special if you ask me.
My eyes may have been directly perceiving all the gunshots, car chases and quick camera edits that were being projected up there in the auditorium, but my mind must have wandered at least a dozen miles throughout the course of the film. The narrative, though not terribly original, could have been substantially beefed up in some way so that the audience might anticipate the would-be twists and turns or analyze character motivations and allegiances. But no, this movie is the bare bones of some delicious ribs: there is no food for thought to be found.
Now I confess that the night I saw the film, I was probably more than a little deficient on sleep and the showing was late at night. After I got back home and saw the ratings that other critics had bestowed upon this film, I briefly considered the probable explanation that I wasn’t in the proper physical condition or state-of-mind to have judged the film on a fair scale. After all, my attention span drifted often and I would come back to consciousness feeling as though I missed out on something crucial. Maybe I was overlooking some important stuff in between that could have warranted a higher opinion of the film.
But as I write this review today, I pulled up the Wikipedia summary for the film. I know, I know, this is also considered another big no-no in the world of film criticism, but let’s just call everything that I do for this review a freebie, alright? Anyway, as I read through the complete and thorough summary of events that went down, I realized that I had understood it for the most part and hardly missed a thing, despite my uncertainty. And for the aspects of the story I didn’t pick up on were mostly unimportant to the final outcome. Not even the commendable ensemble cast is safe from the sub-mediocre fiasco that is “Safe House.”