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On Movies: A riveting, dangerous 'Safe House'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2012 - You've barely settled into your seat for "Safe House," a frenetic, brutal espionage thriller, and rogue American spy Denzel Washington has already been assaulted in a scummy basement men's room, chased on foot and by car through the cacophonous streets of Cape Town, shot at -- and at one point apparently killed -- by snipers, and gruesomely waterboarded by his own countrymen. 

And the head torture guy for the CIA, apparently bored with trying to see how close he can come to actually drowning Washington with a wet towel and a big bucket of water, has called for a knife. I have to say, the first 15 or 20 minutes of this movie is as viscerally exciting as any opening I've seen in the past few years.

Then we hear the chump-chump-chump of automatic weapons outside the "safe house" where Washington is being held, and the action really gets moving.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, a former top agent for the CIA who becomes disillusioned with the agency -- for good reason, as we learn -- and strikes out on his own as an entrepreneur, selling secrets to the highest bidder. He's in South Africa for a spot of business with a former British spy when he comes under such ferocious attack by a mysterious gang of mercenaries that he ends up seeking asylum with the Americans, who stick him in the decidedly unsafe safe house and begin waterboarding him. (By the way, if waterboarding is anything like what we see in the movie, it's torture.)

When mercenaries blow open the door of the safe house and begin mowing down CIA agents, Frost slips out the side door, accompanied by the only other survivor of the slaughter, a naive young agency operative named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who has been "house-sitting" the safe house and itching for some action.

Frost is still in handcuffs and Weston has a gun, so the young agent naively thinks he is in charge and can eventually deliver Frost back to the CIA. Frost tells Weston not to trust anyone, particularly his bosses at the CIA, but kids never listen. After one of the most exciting smash-up car chases in recent movie history, Weston and Frost, sometimes together, sometimes apart but moving in the same direction, head into the interior of South Africa, where they encounter more car chases, more bloody gun battles, and more betrayals. Over time, a rugged kind of mentoring relationship develops between Frost and Weston, although to call this a buddy movie would demand a great deal of elasticity in the definition of buddyhood.

"Safe House" is the American film debut for Swedish director Daniel Espinosa ("Snabba Cash" -- "Easy Money"), and it's an auspicious one. Like a lot of younger directors, he likes to wave a handheld camera around in action scenes, but unlike many he maintains a sense of continuity while hyping up the energy level, and he doesn't chop the film up with a series of split-second cuts that are more confusing than stimulating. (As opposed to, for example, the directors of any recent movie starring Jason Statham.)

The cast is good. Washington is a master at the kind of self-effacing, Alpha-male drollery his role requires, and Reynolds can handle young and naive, although I don't think he's quite ready for "Hamlet." In strong support, as CIA bosses, are Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

The film, with script by David (not Davis) Guggenheim, can be accused of cynicism -- the operative theme is that anyone can and will betray you, and you might as well betray them back (and perhaps your country as well). At least one scene seems to suggest that torture is OK in some circumstances; on the other hand, the filmmakers are to be commended for the realistic portrayal of waterboarding. The plot is muddled -- indeed, sometimes unbelievable, even in espionage-thriller terms -- and at times the relentless brutality can be wearying. But there is no question that "Safe House," taken strictly as a thriller, is, well, thrilling. And sometimes, particularly in the opening scenes, it can leave you breathless.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement