Blu-ray Review: Shaky Cam Mayhem in Joburg With SAFE HOUSE

The CIA thriller Safe House uses a lot of sleight-of-hand in the attempt to create the illusion that there's more movie there than is actually, you know, there. Denzel Washington is along to lend the necessary gravitas to this story of a disavowed spy who knows too much (or in this case, has a chip with information a lot of people want to get at), while Ryan Reynolds is the young CIA agent responsible for bring Washington's character in for interrogation (and the harsh treatment that word now typically obscures). You'd be forgiven for thinking that the Johannesburg setting would serve as more than just window dressing or that a cast with Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard would have more to do than stand around looking peeved at monitors, but then you'd be disappointed.

Washington plays improbably named spy Tobin Frost (get it, because he's so cold) who's spent the last decade on the run from the CIA, allegedly selling state secrets to America's enemies. He's in Johannesburg to collect a chip with some very important information on it that some nations would pay dearly to get their hands on and others would likely kill for. When armed assassins decide to do the latter, Frost marches himself to the nearest embassy from which he's transported to a secret interrogation facility on South African soil, manned by Reynolds' Matt Weston.

If you guessed that the facility will be hit by the same assassins who seem to have an inside man, you deserve a cookie. Do Frost and Weston match wits as the former tries to evade the latter? Yeah, more or less. What about the three CIA heads back in Virginia, do they harbor inexplicable doubts about Weston's loyalty in spite of his otherwise clean record? You bet. Is the inside man the first person you expect for the exact reasons you expect? Uh huh.

The film, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Snabba Cash) could be any direct-to-DVD Wesley Snipes vehicle from the beginning of the 2000s, and everything is so very expected and by the numbers and yet still hopelessly vague. We ultimately find out why the hitmen are after Frost, and the revelation never really adds up to the lost lives and mayhem they've caused in the course of the movie (also: their benefactor must be incredibly loaded to fund this last-minute operation on foreign soil). Weston's arc is more like a line, going for from bored idealist to jaded action hero (speaking of, how exactly was he able to extricate himself from South Africa after the very public shooting of a local cop?).

Washington is his usual cool, detached self, barely there in most of his scenes, just occupying a space where a character should be. What starts off as series of mysteries about the character--what does he have, what does he want, what will he do--collapses by the end of the movie. On e of the most embarrassing aspects of the script is its insistence that several characters refer to him as some kind of legendary spy/bogeyman.

Reynolds tries to give his character some depth as Weston's circumstances become more desperate. There's a subplot about his physician girlfriend who doesn't know what he really does for a living and that draws on ideas about how people in his line of work betray the ones they love, but because the two of them spend so little time onscreen together, there's no real sense of tension with regards to whether or not their relationship will survive this.

Plus, Espinosa can't resist putting the camera on a tilt-a-whirl during action scenes, meaning that the film's several hand-to-hand action scenes will having you questioning what precisely just happened between those two characters when you're not reaching for the Dramamine. It's cinema of distraction, moving and making a lot of noise (god, is this movie loud) without actually saying or showing anything of interest.

Picture and Audio

Did I mention this movie is loud? Well, the 5.1 audio will serve you well if you like the sounds of movie-style silenced gunfire (thoomp thoomp thoomp!), smashing glass, and the crush of metal as cars collide.

Again, it's a big-deal studio picture, so you know the gloss is going to be there with the 1080P presentation, although your mileage may vary on the intentional grain effect (I half thought this was a Tony Scott movie at times). Night time scenes look especially noisy, in attempt to give the movie more of a gritty feel. More smoke and mirrors: attempting to make the movie look cheaper than it is, somehow succeeding in all the wrong ways.

Special Features

Plenty of making of-type stuff here, but nothing especially illuminating.

Safe House is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures.

Making Safe House—This featurette is filled with interviews and behind-the-scenes footage revealing how director Daniel Espinosa, stars Denzel Washington andRyan Reynolds and the rest of the team came together to bring this thrillingstory to life.

Hand-To-Hand Action— Renowned fight choreographer Olivier Schneider (Taken) puts the actors through the intense training and rehearsal required to create the film’s powerful scenes of deadly hand-to-hand combat. Schneider, along with Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Espinosa, explain how the high-intensity, character-based approach to the action informed the final film and share the brilliant raw versions of the scenes (with a special direct-to-camera set-up by Schneider).

Building the Rooftop Chase—Filmed in hardscrabble Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township, this riveting stunt sequence required a massive amount of precision, a little bit of politics and a lot of planning. Featuring cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and a first-person perspective of Denzel Washington’s rooftop run, this piece showcases the intense preparation and focus necessary to pull off one of Safe House’s most pivotal and dangerous sequences.

Inside The CIA—Technical advisor Luis Falcon III, a 30-year CIA veteran who has gone undercover in some of the hottest zones in the world, talks about working with the cast and collaborating with the director. He leads audiences on a walk and talk through the CIA offices and explains just how closely this film matches up to reality.

Behind The Action—Legendary stunt coordinator Greg Powell, fight choreographer Olivier Schneider and tactical advisor Dan Hirst lead viewers through key action sequences involving dangerous driving stunts, heavy gun play and frenetic fight choreography.

Safe Harbor: Cape Town—A popular tourist destination, Cape Town is rapidly becoming one of the most-photographed cities in cinema. The creators of Safe House reveal the reasons they set this intense action thriller in Africa’s multicultural hub.

Shooting the Safe House Attack—Every detail behind the creation of the film’s epic initial attack is revealed in a featurette that includes interviews with Academy Award-winning production designer Brigitte Broch, plus the film’s cast and crew. From the initial rehearsals to the final takes, director Daniel Espinosa and his spectacular stunt team combined artistry with tactical perfection for a chillingly realistic sequence.
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