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Safe, boring plot in Denzel Washington’s ‘Safe House’

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2012 9:20 am

As evidenced by this week‘s review, the quality of new wide releases appears to be dipping again — a definite disappointment, considering how strong the year started off.

Next week, thankfully, this lack of potential review fodder will be of little consequence, as we’ll be knee-deep in Oscar gossip with my annual cover story and I’ll be able to dodge both “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and “This Means War” — thank God for small favors.

The week after we’ll return to reviews with a look at “Project X” (I’m probably in the minority, but I’m rather intrigued by the prospect of the “found footage” aesthetic being applied to other genres besides horror), then flounder for a couple weeks while we wait for “The Hunger Games” to jump-start the pre-summer rollout.

Oh, and a small correction regarding my last column: The teens in “Chronicle” become imbued with super-human powers that include telekinesis, the ability to move objects with one’s mind — not telepathy, or mind-reading, as I accidentally stated in my review. I doubt this mix-up altered anyone’s plans to see or skip the film, but still, an embarrassing mistake nonetheless. Anyway, speaking of embarrassing mistakes …

In some sick way, I don’t mind bad movies, provided they’re awful to the point that it becomes borderline-fascinating to watch the idiocy unfold and marvel at the fact that such nonsense received funding to be made in the first place. They’re actually kinda fun, in an ironic, “Oh, what a world we live in …” sense. Far less compelling are those films that are bad in a routine, “going through the motions” sort of way — films like “Safe House,” an amalgam of every yawn-inducing spy-thriller cliché you’ve ever seen, presented in the exact same way you’ve seen them literally hundreds of times before, with absolutely no effort to stand out in any way at all. The movie is perfectly content to merely exist, and pander to clueless and indiscriminate movie-goers as it sleep-walks toward a predictable and ultimately meaningless conclusion.

As directed by Daniel Espinosa, marking his U.S. debut, “Safe House” is yet another in a long line of generic action pictures assembled from the Tony Scott model, defined by dark, grainy photography, excessively rapid editing techniques that render action sequences incoherent, and a reliance on useless narrative padding that turns what should have been an 80-minute diversion into a two-hour torture session. I guess there’s not much to say about this approach aside from observing once again that it is terrible and stupid and should be stopped by any means necessary, but it also begs the question: Why? It’s not like Tony Scott movies clean up at the box office, and in fact the countless clones typically do even worse business. So why has this mode of filmmaking, which is constantly lampooned by the public and critics alike and doesn’t even earn its keep by producing reasonable box office results, become so incredibly popular in contemporary Hollywood? This is not rhetorical; I’m actually asking, and hope that someone can shed some light on this. Because I’m stumped.

Plot, you say? Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A rogue former CIA operative walks into an American embassy seeking protection from a team of mercenaries attempting to kill him over a file that contains information on a high-ranking mole working within the agency. The CIA sends a novice field agent to bring in the loose cannon, but the mission is complicated when said mercenaries storm the embassy and kill everyone in sight — except, of course, our two reluctant heroes, who proceed to dodge assassination attempts as they unravel the identity of the mysterious mole (who turns out to not actually be all that mysterious, and in fact rather obvious). And … that’s it. No real twists or turns, zero character development, boring action scenes — you know the drill by now.

Most of the studio marketing has centered around the casting of Denzel Washington as the “wild-card rogue,” and indeed, Washington would have been a great choice, if only his character was actually ambiguous in the morally gray Alonzo Harris/Malcolm X sense. About 10 minutes in, though, it’s clear what his character is really up to, and this transparency immediately eliminates any possibility of a complex characterization. Thus we are left to rely on Ryan Reynolds, as the rookie who saves the day for democracy and the American way. Problem is, Reynolds possesses neither the screen presence nor the acting chops to effectively carry a movie on his own. And since the two leads lack any semblance of chemistry with one another, “Safe House” quickly descends into a black hole of genre clichés and contrivances that actually made me wish I was watching a Tony Scott film instead.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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