Monday, February 27, 2012

Safe House [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) Michael Phillips (2 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Michael Phillips review

Safe House (directed by Daniel Espinosa, written by David Guggenheim) is a post-9/11 post-Bourne Identity spy thriller (hence with the fundamental theme of "who can you trust?") that aside from being set in Cape Town and then the countryside of South Africa, doesn't really add anything particularly new to the genre.

Still, like a dream/nightmare that repeats itself until it dissipates or gets resolved, these kind of spy thriller paranoid action films like this seem to "work" today.  Safe House has a 70% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes website and three weeks out, it's still in the top 5 at the box office and it's grossed some $97 million. 

So what's the film specifically about?  Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds) is a rookie/tenderfoot CIA operative with a rather boring "doing one's dues" initial assignment: He's the "manager" of a "team of one" (apparently just himself) project: maintaining a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, should the need ever arise that it'd be needed.  In other words, he's the "groundskeeper" of one of those "undisclosed locations" / "secret prisons" made famous (or infamous) during the G.W. Bush Administration.

It's pretty boring work.  Six months into the assignment, he's had no "house-guests," and about all he has to show for his time in Cape Town is that he's found a French girlfriend, Ana Moreau (played by Nora Arnezeder), who he can't be honest with about what he really does for a living.  All he can do is be "vague" about his work and promise her that his "work" may take him to Paris "one day."  She likes that promise but it's pretty clear that he doesn't have a chance at getting that kind of an assignment since Paris would probably be a rather prestigious CIA posting.  And what has Weston been doing?  He's been playing "cleaning lady" / "maintanence man" in a "stainless steel basement" of an outwardly utterly nondescript-looking building in Cape Town that inside/underground opens up to a compound filled with jail cells and interrogation rooms and all sorts of wild electronic gear.  But the compound NEVER, EVER GETS USED because NOTHING EVER "HAPPENS" IN SOUTH AFRICA ANYMORE.

So Matt spends his time listening to "French language tapes" and trying to get his former mentor David Barlow (played by Brendan Gleesan) stationed at CIA headquarters in Langley to get him the hell out of this spick-and-span but half mothballed dump in Cape Town and on to Paris.  But Barlow has no reason to promote Weston because HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING to justify promotion.  Life can suck ...

Well be careful what you wish for ... One day, a rogue former CIA agent, Tobin Frost (played by Denzel Washington), walks-up to the gate of the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, and to everyone's -- Matt's, Barlow's and Matt's immediate superior (but still way out in Langley) Catherine Linklater's (played by Vera Farmiga) -- surprise Matt's gonna get an actual "house guest."  Why?  Well, Frost had been supposedly one of the CIA's top agents, and then 10 years ago he suddenly "walked off the reservation," sold all kinds of secrets to all kinds of people, often enemies and potential enemies of the United States. Yet NOW for some reason, he "waltzed back" to the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town apparently asking for the U.S. government's assistance.  The obvious question reverberating among the good folks in the U.S. spy/diplomatic community is WHY?  Why the heck would he come back?  And given his past selling of U.S. secrets left and right to all kinds of people, the folks at the CIA are "mighty angry about it."

So when the CIA's "team" comes to Matt's stainless steel basement safe house with Frost in chains and a hood they're not particularly interested in being "nice" to Frost.  Yes, they want answers, eventually, but they also want payback.  So they bring out the water and the towels, and it becomes "water boarding time."  But while the interrogation team is "not yet torturing" ("approaching the line of torturing") Frost, a second team comes in and shoots-up the place, killing everybody but Matt and Frost, who manage to get away.

The quick thinking, CIA veteran turned fugitive Frost had convinced the rookie Matt Weston that it "would look really bad" (presumably on his next performance evaluation) if Weston's "house guest" turned-out to be killed.  So Weston gets Frost out of the building (at least still in handcuffs...) and, rookie that he is, "calls Langley for directions ..."

Much ensues and eventually we get an explanation for "what the heck just happened" and indeed why someone like Frost would have "gone rogue" and arguably betrayed his country after doing so. 

There will be folks who will not like the explanation.  But anyone who knows a little about the power of keeping things secret would certainly suspect that this power could be used to cover-up all sorts of things, many of which would have very little to do with actual "national security ..."

Anyway, there's not necessarily anything new in this film, except perhaps the rather comical portrayal of the quite boring life of a spy-agency "safe house" operator.  (In the film, Frost and Weston make their way to another CIA "safe house," this one out in the South African countryside that makes Weston's old gig "in the city" positively thrilling ...).

Still, we live in a world now of  "secret prisons" in "undisclosed locations" and super-trained, super-compartmentalized special forces units trained to perform missions (and do them on faith...) that we can only imagine.  Add then the temptation to sin, that is to use all that secrecy and power for less than virtuous ends ... and well ... that combination offers a plenty of fodder for a lot of films just like this.

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  1. It’s a serviceable thriller that should satisfy those late winter cravings from action fans who haven’t seen enough bullets and fists flying onscreen. Nothing special but Reynolds and Washington make it better than it has any right to be. Good review Dennis.

  2. Good review. I have no real interest in this film.

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