One thing you learn in the course of nearly 30 years as a film critic is that there truly is no accounting for taste. You realize this, for example, when some helpful citizen takes the time to write a letter to your newspaper to explain the flaws in one of your reviews. When I read these, I’m almost always amazed by the level of outrage in their tone. You’d think I’d committed a crime against society and not just panned a performance. Some people need to cut back on the caffeine.
More to the point, you realize there’s no accounting for taste when you see a film that reeks to the heavens and then read reviews by apparently sane, fully functioning journalists singing its praises. A case in point: Safe House. Now, this is by every standard a fetid, derivative misappropriation of talent, in my book, yet I open up the New York Times and learn that the film is a “tense, tough, visceral action movie.” The Los Angeles Times informs me that it’s a “take-no-prisoners action extravaganza” that is “unmistakably stylish and unsettling.” Nonetheless, I somehow believe mistakes have been made.
Lots of them. The biggest being Denzel Washington’s decision to take part in this tedious travesty. He is far too good for this project. Which isn’t saying all that much. Vin Diesel would have been far too good for this project, a mindless recycling of tropes and motifs from the Bourne series.
Washington stars as Tobin Frost, yet another misunderstood CIA operative who has “gone rogue.” He’s been “off the reservation,” we’re told, for roughly a decade and is accused of selling classified information to America’s enemies. Like Jason Bourne, he’s always a step ahead of his pursuers and evidently unkillable. If these two characters got into a fight, it occurred to me, the brawl could theoretically go on forever.
But I digress. As the movie opens, we find Frost in Cape Town, pursued by a small army of heavily armed thugs. There is much running. There is much shooting. There is much crashing of cars. Miraculously, however, he makes his way to the U.S. embassy, at which point he’s sequestered in a safe house in the custody of a rookie agent named Matt Weston. Ryan Reynolds costars, and, while he’s hardly believable as a lethal spook, it’s nice to see him in something besides green tights.
No sooner does Weston’s guest arrive than all hell breaks loose; the same army of thugs breaks in, forcing the greenhorn to take to the streets with the international man of mystery in tow. There is more running. There is more shooting. There is more crashing of cars. And I don’t mean for the next few minutes. I mean for the rest of the film.
Gradually, it becomes clear that Safe House is not really a movie at all. There’s no story to speak of, just a hackneyed premise: A spy in possession of a mysterious file is pursued by shadowy forces. There certainly aren’t any surprises. There’s no character development, no attempt at quality dialogue. Safe House doesn’t have three acts; it’s just one long chase scene with lots of fights interspersed.
I’m not kidding. It’s like someone took all the action footage from the Bourne films and edited it together without rhyme or reason. Fights in tight spaces — check. Chases across rooftops — check. Langley brass with questionable motives pulling strings from a faraway control room — check. Genuine adrenaline-pumping intrigue — forget about it.
The only characters who aren’t clichés are cartoons, and there’s not a development the audience can’t see coming. If there’s an iota of artistry or originality within a mile of this mess, fledgling writer David Guggenheim and director Daniel Espinosa, here making his Hollywood debut, succeed in keeping it top secret.
Why would pros Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Rubén Blades and Sam Shepard waste their time on this? Taste isn’t the only thing there’s no accounting for.