Denzel Washington has chosen an odd specialty at this point in his career, a juncture at which he can basically do anything. He still steers clear of comedy, he hasn't done a romance in over a decade, and his dramas are fewer and farther between. What he's particularly interested in, it seems, is doing very quiet performances in very loud movies. He primarily appears in action films (most of them directed by Tony Scott), and seems to take pleasure in seeing how defiantly he can underplay them. He doesn't do all that many great movies anymore--but he's almost always great in them, and that's a fair assessment of his most recent effort, Safe House.
Washington plays Tobin Frost, a peerless CIA man who went "off the reservation" a decade earlier. He now has no allegiances and is seemingly incapable of being tracked by the government, who are after him for treason, which is why it's so strange that he marches into the American consulate in Capetown and gives himself up. Before he is extradited, he will be held at a nearby safe house, where the "housekeeper" is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a young buck looking for action. He gets some.
Reynolds is a decent actor, but way overmatched here--so it's a good thing that the dynamic of Washington's dominance works for the narrative. Frost is smarter, stronger, tougher, and meaner than Weston, and thankfully, the younger man never really gets the better of him, even when they close in on the inevitable "begrudging respect" dénouement.
That may sound like a spoiler, but trust me, Safe House is not the kind of movie you're watching for surprising turns and innovative storytelling. It's an actor's show, with Denzel doing his soft-spoken cool-but-edgy guy routine, and Reynolds playing the naïve newbie who learns to think on his feet. It's mostly a movie assembled out of spare parts; their relationship is familiar from Washington's own Training Day (and a hundred other titles), the CIA command center stuff is straight out of the Bourne series, and the half-hearted romance could be excised entirely (though it provides Reynolds his best pure acting scene in the picture).
Supporting performances are mixed. Casting the likes of Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, and Brendan Gleeson as the CIA muckety-mucks is the only way those characters have any inner life at all, though this viewer is getting awfully tired of seeing Farmiga in all these boring empty suit roles. But Reuben Blades has one mellow, marvelous scene, and Liam Cunningham is memorable in his brief appearance as well. Director Daniel Espinosa has some skill as a visceral filmmaker; his staging of a water-boarding scene is harrowing, his car chases have a hard, nervous energy, and though the hand-to-hand scenes OD on the handheld, they've got a scrappy, raw, bruising intensity.
Video & Audio:
Universal's MPEG-4 AVC-encoded video presentation impressively captures the grainy, "gritty," high-contrast, Tony Scott-lite look of the film's theatrical presentation. Blacks are inky and rich, contrast is sharp, and detail work is exquisite.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track boasts sharp directionality and good separation, with buzzing street scenes, whizzing bullets, and breaking glass all over the soundstage. So why the low(ish) rating? Because the dialogue modulation is just terrible. This isn't the first disc I've had this problem with, and I'm certain it won't be the last, and this complaint may well have less to do with the disc's mix than the original theatrical one. But this viewer has about had it with big blockbusters that require home audiences to crank up any scene where people talk to each other, only to have their speakers nearly blown out by the inevitable gun blasts, explosions, or pounding music cues. It's particularly bad in a movie like this one, what with all the intense whispering in the performances, but it's an issue worth bringing up. Even it out a little. That's all I'm saying.
Spanish and French 5.1 DTS Digital Surround mixes are also available, as is a Descriptive Video Service track. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also offered.
The big deal here is the choice to watch the movie with the Second Screen option, either via conventional U-control, or by enabling your computer, phone, or tablet to play the related content during the movie via the "Pocket Blu" app--and to swipe that content on and off of your TV. This is my first time using this function, and while it took a bit of figuring out (and is occasionally buggy) it's still a pretty cool way to interactively view picture-in-picture behind-the-scenes content.
The rest of the extras are featurettes, four of which appear on both the DVD and Blu-ray. "Making Safe House" (11:16) is a general EPK-style piece, mixing production clips, interview snippets with cast and crew, and scenes from the film, while "Hand-to-Hand Action" (7:54) focuses on the fight choreography and execution. "Building the Rooftop Chase" (3:59) is pretty self-explanatory; "Inside the CIA" (6:07) looks at the picture's attempts at authenticity (with some fun input from the cast).
Three more are exclusive to Blu-ray. "Behind the Action" (8:00) takes a close look at the stunt work and action sequences, "Safe Harbor: Cape Town" (8:51) spotlights the locations (yes, the phrase "it's another character in the movie" is uttered), and "Shooting the Safe House Attack" (5:17) takes a top-to-bottom look at a key action scene.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled (though, as usual, that only adds some additional Universal trailers), and comes with a standard-def DVD disc and Digital Copy in both Ultraviolet (boo) and iTunes (yay) form.
There's little in Safe House that you haven't seen before, from the young turk/wise elder byplay to the big reveal that you can see a mile off, in hunter's orange. But Washington (as always) impresses, Reynolds holds its own, and director Espinoza has a good eye for action. They're not reinventing the wheel here, but Safe House is entertaining enough.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.