Safe House (2012)
I suppose the poor saps who draw the short straw for teaching How to Write a CIA Thriller are comforted by the near certainty that all but a few of those enrolling on their courses are likely to be incapable of original thought. These students will not know or understand what constitutes a cliché. They will have insufficient background in thrillers to appreciate what might represent a reasonably novel approach. These wannabe screenwriters are tabula rasa for Plot 101. This starts with two basic characters. One is the underappreciated guy whose face doesn’t fit in the CIA hierarchy. He’s been stranded in a low-activity station not because he’s incompetent. Far from it. He’s actually highly competent but never given the chance to show it. The second is the man of myth who, years before this film begins, went off reservation, was branded a traitor, and has been on the run ever since. So the scriptwriter must contrive a situation which forces this pair to meet. Naturally our boy scout thinks the declared traitor should be shipped back to Langley but, after shots are fired and there have been enough car chases and explosions to convince him not everything is strictly kosher, they bond and as a partnership, stand up for truth, justice and the American way. The audience in every cinema leaps to their collective feet, cheering and clapping when the bad egg (or rotten apple) is unmasked in Langley (or the White House). This is a triumph! Well, in the minds of those going through the Plot 101 Course.
As an example of this plot actually brought to the big screen, we have Safe House (2012). The brave soul whose name appears on the credits as “writer” is David Guggenheim. After one TV movie, this is his first script accepted for Hollywood production. I can’t quite understand what would persuade such a quality cast to participate. Unless, of course, it was the decision of one person to both accept the lead and hold the joint post of executive producer. Everyone else would bank on the theory that this star’s name on the film posters would guarantee an audience even if the film was second-rate. Perhaps not surprisingly, this proved a reliable prediction with the box office total worldwide reported as $208 million. Not a bad return on a production budget of $85 million.
So congratulations to Denzel Washington who really does have the star power to convert a sow’s ear into a reasonably silky purse. He plays Tobin Frost, the CIA-goto-guy with a great reputation until he suddenly starts leaking secrets and killing people. After years on the run, he suddenly turns up in South Africa where Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is responsible for the safe house in Cape Town. When Frost’s meeting with an ex-MI6 agent is compromised, he goes on the run. It rapidly becomes apparent his only refuge is the US Consulate. Several hours later, that lands him in the safe house. There are three “bosses” back in Langley who head the response to Frost’s appearance. They are Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard). From the outset, it’s fairly obvious how to separate these senior people into eggs and apples, i.e. not much subtlety is on display.
From the outset, Matt Weston realises there are ethical issues to consider as Frost is waterboarded as soon as he arrives in the safe house. Fortunately, he does not have time to intervene because the house proves unsafe and comes under attack. Without too much effort, the attackers gain the upper hand. Facing the hard choice, Weston runs out the back door with Frost and their slow bonding begins. When the dust settles at the end, truth if not justice is in the ascendancy and Weston is allowed the luxury of an entirely unrealistic smile from the girl he left behind. In any other world he would have been systematically hacked to death for betraying the CIA’s dark side.
In terms of the acting, only the two primary characters are actually required to do anything requiring skill. Everyone else hits the mark in front of the camera and says the lines with whatever conviction they can muster. So blinding us with his star wattage, Denzel Washington shows us his charming-but-tough persona, smiling with great sincerity when the situation warrants it, and being prepared to shoot in self-defence, i.e. quite often. Ryan Reynolds, on the other hand, is something of an enigma. As a character, he’s too old to be considered a rookie which makes him look more a square peg than seems possible in even the most dysfunctional CIA. Anyway, for all he’s been sidelined, he fights and shoots like a pro, is great when it comes to all the usual spycraft, and turns out to be “better than Frost” at the end. Curiously, every time this pair have the chance for some real conversation, there’s almost always an interruption or distraction, i.e. bullets whistle by, there’s a need to fight, or they get into bandaging and popping painkillers after a fight. The result is a lack of chemistry between them. Denzel is rather aloof and supernaturally calm. Reynolds doesn’t have much to do in displaying emotion although he’s required to take a lot of punishment in the fighting. In the end, Safe House is as good as you get when you start with a Plot 101. With better material to work with and a chance given to the senior cast to perform, we would have had a much better outcome.