We review Safe House – Hard-hitting but can't escape its "safe" formula

6 min read

When it comes to depicting other countries, Hollywood tends to adopt a kind of “stereotype shorthand” – a highlights package approach as it were. So, if the action takes place in Rio, for example, there are typically shots of Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana Beach, and the film’s hero inevitably encounters street kids or finds himself in a labyrinthine favela. If the film is set in Paris you’ll see the Eiffel Tower, or some other iconic building or monument, as well as, say, a creperie or sidewalk coffee shop. Well, action thriller Safe House adopts this same shorthand style in depicting Cape Town… as well as the French capital actually.

Granted there’s no shot of Table Mountain (surprisingly), but it’s like the makers of Safe House went “What do you think about when you hear ‘South Africa’?” In the aftermath of the successful 2010 World Cup, the answer is evidently “soccer, townships and strikes” because all 3 of these elements feature during Safe House’s strong action sequences. Of course, for South African viewers it’s entertaining to see these things depicted onscreen, but they’re also indicative of the fact that the film is a stickler for formula. Safe House is not a bad movie at all, but its tried and tested approach means audiences shouldn’t expect anything special for the most part.

In terms of plot Safe House sees young, principled and likeable CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) frustrated by his “housekeeper” role at a quiet Cape Town safe house. It’s a dead end job, so when sought-after ex agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is brought in for questioning, Matt hopes he’ll receive some recognition. When the safe house is promptly attacked by mercenaries, it really is Matt’s chance to shine as he seizes the initiative and accepts the responsibility of transporting slippery Frost – a legendary master of mind games – to another secure facility. That’s easier said than done, though, with the mercenaries on their tail, cynical Frost plotting his escape, and an apparent traitor in the CIA trying to kill both men.

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For the record Safe House is pretty much a 2 man show, with a considerable amount of interesting character progression afforded to the leads. The film includes other recognisable names and faces, like Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Robert Patrick as CIA agents (look out also for ex-K-TV presenter Jenna Dover). However, these supporting parts are very small and the characters very underdeveloped. Also, don’t expect any notable South African characters – Safe House is very American-centric. The action just takes place in SA.

In terms of delivering the entertainment goods, Safe House is a mixed bag. You shouldn’t be looking forward to any wisecracks from Reynolds for example, or a gratuitous abs shot for that matter (sorry, ladies!). Safe House is a serious movie as gritty as its film stock. What few laughs there are tend to stem from Reynolds’s bad, if credibly accented, Afrikaans (“Moorderer!”). But then again, that’s likely only to amuse locals.

This general lack of levity extends to the film’s action sequences, which are bloody and hard-hitting (literally) – particularly the car chases. Taking its cue from the Jason Bourne movies, Safe House adopts the shaky handycam and hyper-edited approach to depicting action scenes. As soon as the adrenalin spikes, the camera starts darting everywhere, although, for the most part, scenes do remain comprehensible. Unlike Quantum of Solace, for example.

This “realistic” approach to depicting action scenes has become quite an overused trend in recent years, so your feelings about it may determine how much you enjoy its application here. Personally, I felt the choppiness worked better with the thrilling car chases than the on-foot gun and fist fights, although there is one humdinger of an exception near the film’s end – with Reynolds in a brutal grapple to the death that will have you holding your breath.

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Safe House is a no-mess-no-fuss espionage actioner. It doesn’t complicate things. Even the handler betrayals and twists requisite to this genre are simplified here. Safe House isn’t about slickness, slow-mo or wire stunts. And characters certainly aren’t bulletproof. It’s worth noting though that the film could have done with a little less mumbling on Washington’s part – which muffled a few important plot points.

Overall, Safe House is satisfying enough while you’re watching, but the film’s details start slipping from your memory barely 24 hours later. You kind of wish the filmmakers had done more to distinguish Safe House from its genre predecessors than simply throwing a new setting – “exotic” South Africa – into the standard formula mix.

3 or 3.5  stars out of 5, depending on how critical I’m feeling.

Last Updated: February 13, 2012

Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

  • Overall, I agree with this review though I will say that the film does at least try to mine deeper themes than your average Hollywood actioner these days. The Frost/ Weston relationship is a case in point with their relationship arcing from flatout mind fuckery to a sort of earned mutual respect. It’s not Dickens or Shakespeare but it does add some heft to the action.

    Also, kudos to director Espinosa for the action sequences. The guy really knows how to build and pace, with the first incursion on the safehouse being a good example. 

    All in all, an above average action movie which is held back by a seen-it-all-before script, which, given it’s plot, had the the potential to be so much better.

    • Noelle Adams

      Yes, I do agree with you there. It felt like they actually put work into developing the relationship between the 2 men into one of grudging respect – and as I mentioned  in the review, both Tobin and Matt undergo a bit of character progression (e.g. will Matt start disregarding his morals to get ahead?), which you rarely see in this type of film. So kudos for that!

      I just felt all the positives were countered by such predictability in other areas. Which lowered my opinion of the film in the end.

      • One thing though. It might not matter to Yanks (the market the studio really wants to capture with this kind of film) or anyone not from Cape Town, but didn’t it grate a bit the film’s liberal take on our geography.

        I’m not sure that it’s possible to take a left turn on the Foreshore into Bo-Kaap, tear down the narrow roads and then land up on the freeway leaving the city.

        Best thing to do is accept that it’s a fictional Cape Town I guess

  • Finally got around to seeing this last night, and agree completely with Justin. Exceptional action sequences in an above average film. However I generally like shaky cam, when used correctly and with some talent, so I rather enjoyed the on-foot sequences. 

  • Noelle Adams

    I think the very naff ending destroyed a lot of the goodwill I developed towards the film. Still though, nothing special.

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