There's a sociopath next door.
Dear Ryan Reynolds,
I still think of you as Van Wylder. I don’t really know why, because it’s been ten years since that movie came out, and I’m not actually sure I ever saw it. I likewise missed most of the films you did like Buried, where you played something a bit different, and probably more akin to your character in Safe House. Don’t get me wrong, I thought you were great in Safe House. You’re definitely a fine actor. Hell, you successfully convinced me that you can be a badass, which is no small feat. There’s just one problem.
You’re too pretty.
This will sound strange, but bear with me: the best thing about Safe House is its generic plot. Not because it’s interesting, although it kept my attention relatively well throughout, but because it lowered my expectations. I thought that I was in for something stupid, hopefully fun, but not particularly impressive. But it was a trap, because the incredibly stereotypical characters and story belie the movie’s many great qualities.
You’ve got Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), the low-ranked CIA guy who’s just looking for a chance to prove himself; Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), the grizzled veteran who defected, sold secrets, and teaches Weston the ways of the world; Linklater (Vera Farmiga) who is pretty much the exact same character Farmiga played in Source Code; etc. None of the character arcs do anything special, and none of the demises or betrayals of characters come as a shock.
However, all of the performances make the characters far more compelling than they really have any right to be. I may have seen all of these characters a dozen times before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them done this well. This is especially significant given the movie’s lack of characterization and backstory. With the exception of Tobin Frost, it is not clear that any of these people have ever really done anything prior to the start of Safe House. With the exception of Matt Weston, it is not clear that any of the events made significant impact on any person’s morality and understanding of the world. But even so, I never found myself alienated from the whole thing. Part of that was probably the fact that there was never really time to stop and think, but I think it’s mostly a testament to the actors.
Speaking of actors, Ryan Reynolds really is a strange choice for a CIA operative. As I said before, he’s pretty. Whereas other movie badasses like Daniel Craig, Matt Damon, and even Denzel Washington pull off handsome but dangerous, Reynolds looks like a guy who models clothes for a living. For much of the movie, it didn’t bother me too much, especially as the myriad fight scenes slowly pummeled his face (As Edward Norton would say, “I felt like destroying something beautiful”), but it occasionally reared its gorgeous head, and the illusion was lost. In the final moments of the film, he stops being Matt Weston and returns to Ryan Reynolds. He looks the way he does in magazines and at events. It’s not his fault, because he continues to act competently, but he’s just too pretty.
Denzel Washington, on the other hand, is absolutely excellent. He went through absolute hell in that movie (he was literally tortured), and his character is by far the most interesting and the most badass. There are moments where the audience cheered him on because of the ease with which he pulled off moves that could never work in real life but looked spectacular on film.
Or maybe it was digital. I don’t actually know, but that question highlights my biggest issue with the look of the film. It was definitely a digital projection, and it seemed like a digital image with a very heavy film grain effect added in post. It doesn’t look like grain, though. It looks like digital noise, and noise looks terrible. You can see it in these images. That's not poor compression. It's what the film looks like. It was mostly an issue in the slow moments, the few dramatic pauses peppered in to break up the near-constant stream of action and violence, but it’s distracting as hell, and it doesn't look good at all.
Fortunately the movie underneath the grain/noise does look great, and it sounds great to boot. The direction, cinematography, and especially sound design are all top notch. Director Daniel Espinosa refused to use any green screens in the film and shot essentially the entire film on location. This gives everything a realism that is missing from a lot of movies these days, action or otherwise, and that realism certainly helps to make it stand out from the pack.
What I am really trying to tell you that you should see Safe House. It’s got its issues, but while they may hamper the experience, the quality still shines through. There are so many ways it could have failed, but there is obvious talent in every aspect of the production, and they turned a generic action film into something great. Had this come out last year, it would have easily been my favorite action film of the year. Unfortunately this year it will be going up against a new Bourne film and a new Bond film. Will it be better than either of those? No, probably not. But as something to get you through these unseasonably warm winter months, it succeeds as an excellent piece of entertainment.