“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

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“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

One of the first hits of the year 2012 turned out to be a neat little political thriller called “SAFE HOUSE” that was directed by Daniel Espinosa. 

Penned by David Guggenheim, “SAFE HOUSE” is about a young and ambitious C.I.A. agent named Matt Weston, whose present assignment is the “housekeeper” of an Agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When ex-C.I.A. agent-turned-international criminal Tobin Frost turns himself in to a nearby U.S. consulate, Weston is informed by his superiors at Langley that Tobin will be brought to the safe house by an Agency torturer named Daniel Kiefer and his men. Weston watches the torture, until the process is interrupted by mercenaries led by a man named Vargas. He has been after Frost for some information that the latter acquired from an MI-6. Kiefer and the other C.I.A. agents are killed by Vargas and his men. And Weston escapes the safe house with Frost as his captive.

As I had stated earlier, “SAFE HOUSE” is a neat little political thriller filled with exciting chase sequences and nail-biting fight scenes. All of this was filmed in and around Cape Town, Africa; which struck me as a refreshingly original setting for a spy thriller. More importantly, screenwriter Guggenheim allowed all of the action to revolve around the computer file that the Tobin Frost character had acquired. The file contained information on the illegal activities of various intelligence officials throughout the world – including those from the C.I.A. The Vargas character had been recruited to get his hands on the file and kill Frost in the process. Due to this subplot, Guggenheim managed to introduce the element of a “mole” within the C.I.A. And the mole in question might either be Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, or the latter’s colleague, Catherine Linklater.

I cannot deny that “SAFE HOUSE” is an entertaining thriller and I could easily see why it did so well at the box office. It possessed a tight plot concerning betrayal. The movie also questioned Weston’s determination to maintain his C.I.A. career by allowing Frost to recount his own intelligence career and the circumstances that led him to turn rogue. However . . . it was not a perfect movie. It has its share of flaws that will never allow it to be considered one of the best spy thrillers to come out of Hollywood.

I have complained in past reviews about the new style of cinematography and editing that has prevailed in action-adventures since the BOURNE movies directed by Paul Greengrass. Yep . . . the same type of cinematography, direction and pacing is also prevalent in “SAFE HOUSE”, thanks to director Daniel Espinoza, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Rick Pearson. Oh well. I suppose one has to endure some unpleasant aspects for the sake of a decent story. Speaking of the story . . . well, how can I say this? I enjoyed it. But I must admit that I found it rather predictable. It did not take me very long to figure out the “mole” who had sent Vargas to kill Frost. And I managed to figure out Weston and Frost’s fates at least a half hour before the movie ended.

Thankfully, “SAFE HOUSE” provided plenty of first-rate performances that allowed me to . . . somewhat overlook the movie’s flaws. Some of my favorite Denzel Washington roles have always been those that reeked of moral ambiguity. And Tobin Frost proved to be one of his most ambiguous roles to date. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by his character’s goal by the film’s last twenty minutes. I had assumed that his position as a rogue agent was a means to bring justice to the “mole” within the C.I.A. or in protest of some operation that threatened innocents. I was wrong. His actions had been purely motivated by greed. Yet, I could not help cheering him on, as he managed to evade his pursuers throughout the movie. Ryan Reynolds portrayed a less ambiguous role – namely the inexperienced C.I.A. agent Matt Weston, who has ambitions to rise within the Agency. Reynolds is already in his mid-30s, yet he did a first-rate job in capturing the naivety and ambitions of someone who could be at least a decade younger. This allowed Reynolds convey Weston’s gradual maturity with great skill. By the end of the movie, his Weston almost seemed like a completely different from the young man at the beginning of the film.

“SAFE HOUSE” also boasted some solid performances from Sam Shephard, who portrayed the garrulous C.I.A. Director Harlan Whitford; Vera Farmiga as C.I.A. operative Catherine Linklater, who seems determined to believe that Weston is a fellow conspirator of Frost’s; Liam Cunningham as the MI-6 agent who provided Frost with the files; Rubén Blades as a former contact of Frost’s, whose help he seeks in a local Cape Town township; Robert Patrick, who gave his character – C.I.A. torturer Daniel Kiefer – a sharp air of professionalism; and Nora Arnezeder, as Whitford’s French girlfriend, who left confused by his sudden determination to distance himself from her. My favorite supporting performance came from Brendan Gleeson, whose portrayal of Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, seemed to rival Washington’s when in regard to moral ambiguity. Gleeson injected enough mystery into the character to make a viewer wonder if he is the mole or not. At the same, it is quite apparent that he cares about Weston’s career and safety.

“SAFE HOUSE” may not be the best spy thriller to come along in quite a while. I found the plot rather predictable and I was not that impressed by the Greengrass-style photography and editing. But I cannot deny that Daniel Espinoza directed an entertaining thriller, thanks to a solid script written by David Guggenheim and an excellent cast led by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.

“SOURCE CODE” (2011) Review

“SOURCE CODE” (2011) Review

It is a miracle that I ever got the chance to see the new techno-thriller, “SOURCE CODE”. It is a miracle . . . at least to me, because I never saw a movie trailer or read an article about it before the eve of its release. I would have ignored it completely if I had not noticed several billboards advertising the movie throughout the city. And since the movie featured actors I happened to admire, I decided to go see it. 

Directed by Duncan Jones and written by Ben Ripley, “SOURCE CODE” is about a decorated army helicopter pilot named Colter Stevens, who finds himself on a mission to locate the maker of a bomb that exploded and destroyed a train headed into downtown Chicago. Stevens is isolated inside a chamber, where he communicates with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin. She explains to Stevens via a computer screen that he is inside the Source Code, a program that allows him to take over someone’s body in his or her last eight minutes of life. He learns from the program’s creator, Dr. Rutledge that the Source Code is not a simulation, but a visit into the past in the form of an alternative reality. Stevens cannot truly alter the past to save any of the passengers, but that he must gather intelligence that can be used to alter the future and prevent a future attack. In short, Steven’s mission is to locate the bomb on the train, discover who had built it and report back to Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge before the bomber can detonate a second larger bomb, a dirty nuclear device in Chicago.

While watching the movie’s first half hour, I had assumed that the psychic essence of the Colter Stevens’ character was being sent back into the past to change the timeline and prevent the destruction of the train. I thought that this was some kind of cinematic version of the old UPN television series, “SEVEN DAYS” (1998-2001). But Stevens eventually discovered how he got the assignment to identify the bomber. Confused and frustrated, he used the cell phone of a train passenger and discovered that he had supposedly died in the Afghanistan war two months earlier and that his severely injured body was appropriated by the Air Force and used by Dr. Rutledge to enter the Source Code. When that plot twist was revealed, I realized that “SOURCE CODE” might have more in common with both the U.K. and U.S. versions of“LIFE ON MARS”.

“SOURCE CODE” was not a hit. Although the movie earned three times the amount of its budget, it really did not earn that much at the box office, despite favorable reviews from critics. Pity. Because I believe that it was a well made film. I also have to give kudos to Don Burgess for his supervision of the movie’s visual effects, including his photography of Montreal and Chicago. I was especially impressed at how he and his crew handled a particular scene in which the Stevens character exchanged romantic glances with one of the train’s passengers, a woman named Christina Warren, while the train was being incinerated by the terrorist’s bomb.

Director Duncan Jones did justice to Ben Ripley’s first-rate script with excellent pacing and action sequences. And using the superb cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal, he handled the dramatic scenes very well. Jones managed to do a great job in balancing both the dramatic and actions sequences. But what really made “SOURCE CODE” very appealing to me was Ben Ripley’s screenplay. I cannot help but admire how he paced each big revelation in the movie’s story without rushing or bringing it to a slow crawl. And as I had watched the movie reached its finale, it occurred to me that “SOURCE CODE”ended on a note that I believe that the U.S. version of “LIFE ON MARS” should have. I found the whole experience very satisfying.

Earlier, I had commented on the superb acting in the “SOURCE CODE”. And I still maintain that belief. Although the movie featured solid acting by the supporting cast, it was the four main leads that shined . . . at least in my opinion. Jake Gyllenhaal did a marvelous job in his portrayal of Coulter Stevens, the military helicopter pilot that found himself a part of a government program that he never signed for. Gyllenhaal perfectly conveyed his character’s initial confusion, growing awareness of the Source Code program, his growing affection toward the Christina Warren character. And the actor managed to pull all of these acting chops and remain a very effective action hero. Both Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright as Colleen Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge respectively, took me by surprise. Literally. Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin started out as a cool professional that utilized a brusque manner to ensure the completion of Stevens’ mission. But the actress did an excellent job in conveying her character’s growing attachment and compassion toward the doomed helicopter pilot. Wright’s Dr. Rutledge followed a reverse path. When his character was first introduced, I was left with the impression of a slightly nervous and shy man who was determined to save Chicago. But as the movie progressed, Wright slowly, but effectively pulled back the layers of his character to reveal a man, whose obsession with his creation had eroded a great deal of humanity from his personality. Behind the shy and nervous man was a ruthless being that lacked any compassion whatsoever. Watching Wright perform, it occurred to me that he has become a true chameleon, capable of getting under the skin of any character. Michelle Monaghan’s portrayal of the passenger Christina Warren seemed to lack the complexity of the other three major characters. But I must admit that she did a great job in portraying her character as a warm and vibrant personality. One could not label her character as a “damsel-in-distress”. After all, her character had died before the movie’s first reel. But it finally occurred to me that instead of the damsel, Monaghan’s Christina Warren served as Coulter Steven’s emotional center.

Did “SOURCE CODE” have any flaws? Well . . . I realize that I had commented on the supporting cast’s “solid” action. And I stand by my word. However, not all of them were perfect. There were a few characters among the train’s passengers that struck me as a tad over-the-top. If the movie had any other flaws, I did not notice. I was too busy being intrigued and entertained by Ben Ripley’s first-rate story, Duncan Jones’ direction and the superb acting by the movie’s four leads. It is a pity that the movie failed to become a major hit, despite earning a profit. I still believe that it had deserved to become one.