I’m not a fan of B-movies. I don’t mean a B-movie, in the classic sense of the phrase – a movie that doesn’t have a big budget. I’ve seen plenty of small budget movies that I’ve enjoyed on multiple levels. What I mean by B-movie is a movie where it seems like everybody involved – director, writer(s), actors – put forth a “B” (or less) effort. A movie that “feels” like it was slapped together “by the numbers,” or followed the “formula” to suck some movie dollars out of the pockets of a particular movie-watching demographic is a B-movie in my book. The B-movies of old are actually a lot of fun to watch. What they lack in budget, they often make up for in camp, zeal, passion, humor, creativity, or some combination thereof. You get a sense that everybody involved in making the old classic B-movies is having fun and inviting us along to have fun with them. The modern version of a B-movie, though, is downright cynical, looking like it was put together by accountants and advertisers – afraid to take any risks… sticking to the tried and true (and hence, predictable) road to make a buck (or millions of bucks). Yawn. I was expecting Safe House to be a B-movie. The marketing for it sent out that kind of vibe. That’s why I didn’t bother to see it until it popped up and my neighborhood Red Box. I saw it and was thoroughly entertained. It wasn’t a B-movie after all. As action movies go, it was good.
Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is the most dangerous renegade in the CIA’s recent history. He’s been on the run, evading contact for a decade. Out of nowhere he pops up on the radar and turns himself in to an American Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s taken for questioning to a CIA safe house where a rookie operative, Weston (Ryan Reynolds), is on duty. Usually noting happens on Weston’s watch. But when the safe house is attacked, Weston finds that his only choice is to escape with the crafty Frost in tow. Now both of them are on the run and trying to find out who is really trying to kill them.
First time screenwriter, David Guggenheim, does an okay job. There’s the typical spy movie clichés – plot, situations, and characters. The script could have done with more detail and added some depth to the characters. It was the weakest element of the movie, by far, although there was never a cringe-worthy line, or anything too dumb that “took me out” of the plot or the story. The actors (especially Washington) make the script seem better than it is. This was Daniel Espinosa’s first American movie and his first action movie. I think he studied all the recent thrillers in this genre. He did his homework okay. His direction is good, but it didn’t break any new ground. His previous directing was of a foreign film, Outside Love (Uden for kærligheden), that received very good reviews. I imagine he must not have wanted to veer away from the known action directing styles too much with his first big budget Hollywood movie. So, everything you see in this movie, you’ve seen before.
A big plus for me was the way they did the hand to hand action scenes and the sound. I just want to say that I’m not a fan of the whole shaky-cam thing; a lot of movies have been using that lately. Here, however, I didn’t mind it. The action that involves gun fights are ones you’ve seen countless times before. If you’ve seen any action B-movie in the past five years, then you know how they play out. Same goes for the car chases. They are actually good, but just more of the same ole good we’ve seen before. The hand-to-hand fighting was filmed in a way where I really got into it. Those scenes benefited from the shaky-cam; it made the scenes more intense to watch. The action scenes were also elevated to a higher reality by excellent sound. The sound seemed real. That, alone, added a huge element in engaging my interest. Future action movie directors should take note; an emphasis on sound and audio can really go a long way.
The acting changes the whole nature of this movie. This is truly a case where the acting makes the movie better than it actually is – where it’s elevated to a higher level by the performances of its stars. I’ve always thought of Ryan Reynolds as an average actor. Here, though, he surprised me. Even without excellent material, he is solid all the way through and “sells” his character for the most part. Now the big one, Denzel Washington. This guy just knows how to act. He embodies the role in a way that only he can and then runs with it, all the way. Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard are good in their supporting roles. The performances from the actors is what saved this film from being a B-movie. And the performance from Washington, in particular, and to a great extent also Reynolds (surprisingly), is what made this movie a solid entertaining experience and compelling to watch.
After being disappointed with Contraband and countless other recent B-movies, I’ve come to the conclusion that B-movies today have become C-movies. They come off as lazy efforts and aren’t even that entertaining. Safe House, however, delivered on that old fashioned, classic, straight-up B-movie fun that’s been absent for a while. This was a breath of fresh air. This isn’t a movie that’s going to be talked about on any end of the year best lists, or be a crowning piece in someone’s movie collection, but Safe House is guaranteed to make for a fun movie night.