Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a young CIA operative feeling trapped by his dull posting as the keeper of a safe house in Cape Town. His rather tedious existence is suddenly blown apart by the arrival of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a former secret agent accused of selling out his country and who’s been on the run for several years.
The team who’ve captured him immediately start using aggressive techniques to get info out of him, but are interrupted by armed men storming in, shooting up the place while looking for Tobin. Matt is forced to go on the run with Frost in tow. He’s determined to get captured fugitive safely into CIA hands, but the former agent isn’t planning to go quietly, especially as there’s more to him than meets the eye and an ever growing conspiracy around him.
It’s a relatively simple on-the-run set-up, which does a decent job of trying to make this as much about characters as action – with Weston’s youthful idealism bumping up against Frost’s world-weary cynicism. However the movie has the feel of being messed around with, making it a little disjointed. That’s not helped by a seeming desperation to trade on the style of the Bourne movies.
The film looks the same, sharing the cinematographer of the last two Bourne movie, while director Daniel Espinosa – making his mainstream debut after the world cinema success of Snabba Cash – almost seems to be trying to channel Paul Greengrass’ style of shaky camera, fast-paced editing and bullet point dialogue that works but doesn’t like sound how people actually talk. It makes for some effective action scenes, but with the bits in-between being annoyingly shaky (literally) and jumpy.
Even during the action, the editing is sometimes so excessive it’s tough to follow what’s going on, as it jumps between shots at a ridiculous rate of speed and the camera swings all over the place. This becomes somewhat problematic at the end, when there are vital moments where it becomes difficult to tell exactly what’s going on (and people are doing highly implausible things). The real issue, as this hyper-kinetic style has posed for numerous filmmakers, is that it tends to concentrate so hard on trying to make each moment interesting that it doesn’t pay enough attention to the overall picture or in some cases even the overall scene.
It results in a film where if you’re the sort of viewer who likes fully coherent filmmaking, you’ll probably find Safe House a rather frustrating experience. However if you’re more interested in fast-paced story, lots of OTT (but not particularly logical) conspiracies and hyper-kinetic action scenes, you’ll be more than satisfied. There’s certainly some good hand-to-hand combat (once more Bourne inspired, but messier – in a good way – than Matt Damon’s one-on-one battle), with a fight with Joel Kinnaman being particularly brutal and edge-of-your-seat.
It’s definitely not a bad film, but if it could have just calmed down a little bit it could have been so much more. The plot itself is potentially quite interesting, alighting on the difficulty of controlling organisations and people who by their very nature are on the edge of what’s right and what’s wrong, but the editing and wobbly camera are so in-your-face that gets slightly hidden.
The DVD release includes a featurette that concentrates on the action sequences, with the British stunt director talking about how they put together the fights and admittedly impressive car chases. There are more features on the Blu-ray version, if you’re interested.
Overall Verdict: Safe House certainly has its high spots, but its desire to be Bourne 2.0 and hyper-kinetic feel lead if to be a messier experience than it could have been.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac