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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Movie review: Safe House, dir Daniel Espinosa (2012)

Ryan Reynolds plays rookie CIA agent Matt Weston
opposite rogue operative Tobin Frost, played by
Denzel Washington, in Safe House.
Setting the film in South Africa gives the filmmakers the chance to explore for the benefit of American audiences a number of popular memes associated with that country. It's a country with a shameful past and an uncertain future, so it is suitable as a setting for this story.

There's the delapidated township at one point where the main players end up fighting the bad guys, but the writers really don't take advantage of the feral reputation such places possess. Downtown Johannesburg itself looks like a cross between any large US metropolis and Mexico City, a place where modern skyscrapers sit alongside street markets selling food to a mixed-race populace. There's the huge, new soccer stadium with happy fans tooting vuvuzelas outside on the crowded concourse. There are the long, dusty, lonely roads of the arid countryside as well as plenty of modern, metro expressways: ideal settings for car chases. There's the lonely country house with its armed occupant. There's also the cosmopolitan aspect, with Weston's French girlfriend, Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder), to say goodbye to in a dim subway station. But all of these things are simply window dressing to the main plot, which is about corruption within the secret world of spies.

Director Daniel Espinosa is a competent guide for the action. He's also a fairly new director in the realm of major releases. It's fitting, then, that Ryan Reynolds plays rookie CIA agent Matt Weston alongside rogue operative Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington. Washington fits easily into the grey-bordered cosmopolitanism of South Africa but I found the reliance on red wine as an indicator of sophistication - the prop appears at two points in the story - a bit gauche. Nevertheless Washington's loose demeanour and mobile face lend him a mercurial aspect that suits his character's rep; Frost is an ex-CIA agent who has made betraying the service his way of life.

The film starts with Weston bored with looking after a CIA safe house in Johannesberg. Then one day a group of colleagues bring Frost there and interrogate him using waterboarding techniques. We had already seen Frost being chased by a group of thugs with powerful SUVs and guns, but the CIA treats him like the enemy. So there are three sets of players in the game. When the safe house is attacked by the thugs, Weston flees with Frost, who he must protect but who he must also treat as the enemy. In the logic of such narratives a bond of friendship must develop between Frost and Weston, and sure enough this happens as the two negotiate urban and rural landscapes. Along the way, Frost and Weston talk: the experienced operative to the new player, knowledge to innocence, tainted to pure. The fact that the crew of thugs is able to track the two so closely is cause for alarm for Weston, and his confusion pushes him closer to his charge.

Watching the drama unfold, from the secure confines of Langley, Virginia, the CIA's headquarters, are a number of other players, who include a suitably hoary and experienced operative in David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson). Barlow's exchanges with Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) expose to the audience the possibility of a shadow game being orchestrated by people within the CIA itself. Who is to be trusted? Why do the thugs always know where Weston and Frost are located? What are the contents of the mysterious files that Frost has received from the MI6 agent in Johannesberg? To spare those who have not seen the film any disappointment, I suggest that they stop reading now as there are spoilers ahead.

Frost seems to know why the thugs are so adept at trailing him around the countryside, but Weston doesn't. The files turn out to be documents that, if released to the public, would discredit a number of intelligence organisations around the world, including the CIA. They would also ruin careers. But whose? When Barlow shoots Linklater it becomes clear to the viewer that he is one person who is trying to minimise damage by locating and destroying the files before they can be made public. He has something to lose, and something to be ashamed of. But Weston keeps his own counsel, thereby benefiting from Frost's insights, and when he returns to Langley to face the chief, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepherd), he keeps his cards close to his chest and denies any knowledge of the files. As the film draws to a close Weston is seen uploading the files to the media on his mobile phone as he stalks purposefully out of the glass lobby of CIA HQ dressed in a grey, unbuttoned suit.

Whitford had offered Weston a responsible role within the CIA where he could exercise his hidden talents. We don't know if Weston took up this offer but it seems clear that he has managed to remain outside suspicion in the matter of the data release. Naturally enough, he ends up in Paris, where he has located Ana, and it is with a sly, secretive glance from her that the film ends. It's a nice touch to complete a work that contains much to enjoy for the enthusiast of espionage and action. This is a really good film, and I look forward to seeing Espinosa's next piece of work.

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