Screenwriters. Listen hard. I’m sure you’ve been told the same general thing I have: there are only 8 stories in the world. Every single story can be boiled down to a variation or combination of these ur-myths: Cinderella, Achilles, Faust, Tristan, Circe, Romeo & Juliet, Orpheus and Die Hard. There are no new stories, just new ways to tell them. What that means is that you should be building a unique world and characters around the basic spine of a well-developed mythos. That doesn’t mean that you take a story you know and change four elements. That’s not writing something fresh and exciting; that’s called Mad Libs. And no matter how cool Denzel Washington is, he’s not going to make your stale-ass “Corruption In The Spy Game” template any better. Safe House is yet another CIA agent on the run from his corrupt overseers out to kill him. Only this time, they tried to combine it with “Buddy Cop Drama.” The end result is a dry, trite, melodramatic “thriller” that spends its time jerking between jittery Tiny Baysian Penis explosivo and dreary intervention sessions where Denzel tries to talk Ryan Reynolds out of being a secret agent. I only wish he had mentored him before the film got shot, because it would have saved me $12.
There’s been a trend lately, where almost every government agency causes one of their agents to get disavowed or go rogue. I wonder if this is how they are attempting to balance the budget. “You know, if we disavow G.I. Joe and IMF, we could save $2 million on agent salaries.” “They only get $2 million? Between both agencies? With all the world saving they do?” “They’re military. They make 1/46th what a freshman Congressman makes. If they got a job serving pizzas at Shakey’s it’d be a promotion.” “But won’t that mean the world might end?” “No, they’ll save the world anyway, but we don’t have to pay them to do it this way. ” “What should we do with the surplus? Give it to the banks again?” “Fuck it. Champagne orgy at O’Reilly’s fuckpad.” “You magnificent bastard. Kiss me.”
So the plot of Safe House. Second verse, same as the first, sing it with me now, kids. Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a rogue agent whose been selling secrets to US enemies for nine years, receives a file on microchip from an MI:6 agent (Liam Cunningham) which proves rampant corruption in several espionage agencies. When he finds himself pinned in by a cabal of baddies, led by the Persian Liam Neeson (Fares Fares), he turns himself in to the US Consulate General in Cape Town, South Africa (woo, TK, woo!). This sets off alarms in Langley, the top secret headquarters of the CIA that everyone knows about, and so two high ranking agents Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Linklater (Vera Farmiga) square off against each other to bring in Frost for the Deputy Director (Sam Shepard). SPOILER ALERT for all four of you who’ve never seen a Bourne movie : Most of them are the bad guys.
Frost is immediately brought in to the safe house by a team lead by Kiefer (Robert Patrick). The safe house is monitored by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a low-level agent on babysitting duty who spends most his time learning French by earbud and tossing a tennis ball in an empty medical clinic doctored up to mask a barracks and interrogation room for the CIA. Anyway, the Safe House is compromised, Denzel Washington is cool as a cucumber, and Weston drags him away into the buddy movie portion of the film. They hate each other, then they love each other, there’s a lot of doublecrossing, and a lot of people get shot in the head and shoulders and Pantene.
Screenwriter David Guggenhim (not to be confused with Davis Guggenheim, and don’t worry, you won’t) and director Daniel Espinosa spend most of their time sucking all the joy out of abundantly jovial actors. There’s a wealth of older awesomeness in this film: Liam Cunningham, Robert Patrick, Brendan Gleeson, Ruben Blades, Sam Shepard. But like the latecomers to a crowded brothel, there’s really not much for them to do. Especially Robert Patrick, who has fattened up and is now like a spectacular grizzly bear of a man. Vera Farmiga has decided to spend her accolades on playing a series of frowning government suitwearers. One more, and I think she gets a free coffeemaker from Office Max. Denzel Washington is fucking ultrasuede in this movie. He’s so cool and calm and smooth that he literally shoots people with a casual strut. He doesn’t care that there’s gunfire around him, or that people are beating each other up. If he had a cigarette and newspaper, he’d been drinking espresso in a cafe while the tables exploded around him. Even when he’s in fight sequences, he’s like fucking Fonzie. He projects “Don’t Give a Shit.” I’m pretty sure there are whole scenes where he just fired the prop gun because he felt like it, and they arbitrarily intercut bad guys laying there dead or falling off the roof just because he’s fucking Denzel.
The biggest problem in the film is Ryan Reynolds. I like Reynolds, and I think he could be a legit action star. The problem is that here, he’s wallpaper paste. He’s a cubicle monkey, a gofer, the Dane Cook of CIA Agents. Reynolds is at his best when he gets to use his charm. Matt Weston is completely devoid of charm. Reynolds is probably the closest thing we have in the action genre to a young Bruce Willis. Willis still gets to fire a machinegun and one-liner combo, but now they’re cholesterol jokes. Reynolds can do that. He has done that — he, Triple H, and Parker Posey were the only watchable parts of Blade: One Too Many. When considering casting for the part of Matt Weston, producers were looking at Zac Efron, Charming Potato, Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, Garrett Hedlund, Shia LeBoeuf, and pretty much any number of dull handsome twentysomethings. How they ended up with Reynolds makes little sense. But considering the other films that are opening this month, The Vow and This Means War, I feel like Denzel just switched out actors. “Bring me someone else. Someone from one of the romantic ‘comedies.’” “Which one? Chris Pine?” “Nah, I already worked with him. Bring me that Green Phantom kid.” “Green Lantern? Ryan Reynolds? ” “Yeah, I like him. He was the shit in The Proposal.” “Well, what should we do with—” “Give him to Witherspoon. I don’t care.” “Why is Prisco doing all these dialogue jokes?” “Because he hated the movie and he’s typing the review at 3 AM and he’s low on sleep. Give the kid a break.” “This just seems hackneyed.” “So’s your face. Get me Reynolds.” Denzel has the juice to actually pull another actor directly out of a film already in theaters.
If you are starving for screeching tires and lots of abrupt gunfire, and could use some sleep, by all means, go see Safe House. You’ll drift off during all the somber string music as Denzel convinces Ryan Reynolds to give up the spy game, only to be awoken by loud explosions and pounding drums. And if you should fall asleep for the first hour and a half, don’t sweat it, everything you figured out in the first five minutes comes true in the last twenty. And then you get to listen to Kanye West and Jay-Z, a more exciting showdown than anything else in the film. Like the Punxatawney Phil of underwhelming cinema, January-February Release Denzel once again smiles at his shadow, ushering in six more weeks of bullshit films.