Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent who works as the "housekeeper"
of a safe house in Cape Town. After 12 months of boredom, Matt is called to
action when a rogue agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) mysteriously hands
himself over to authorities. When the safe house is compromised, it’s up to the
green agent to bring one of the world's most wanted men to justice.
What we thought:
It must be a particular type of aggravation to be a Los Angeles
resident who regularly has to sit through your average Hollywood film and
notice the incongruous edits and free artistic licence taken during car chase
scenes – routes that don’t make sense, locations that don’t exist in real life –
Capetonians get to experience that for themselves in Safe
House, a furiously entertaining and non-stop action thriller in which Hollywood
heavyweights Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds play spy games all over
the Mother City. Though the setting is hardly painted as the paradise many locals see their city as. No, this is the "other Cape Town" - the grimy inner-city, the chaos and poverty of the townships.
The movie does feature a few heart-stopping shots of Cape Town landmarks such as Table Bay with the stadium in the foreground, though Safe House is not too concerned about depicting the city as a picture postcard destination – it has a hard-hitting action thriller to stage, which it does rather spectacularly.
Key to Safe House's thrill-ride is the to-and-fro chemistry between Reynolds and Washington, as the two build a master and student relationship while trying to outdo each other while also playing a cat-and-mouse chase game with a ruthless group of mercenaries out to capture Tobin and recover the top secret information he has in his possession.
Washington doesn't fail to make a lasting impression, playing it ever so cool, even as he is being waterboarded. It's the type of tough but tongue-in-cheek performance that he has done before – recalling so many of his anti-hero roles in Training Day, The Book of Eli and American Gangster – and he barely breaks a sweat while putting down his 97th baddie. He's certainly played more noble characters in the past, but its Badass Denzel that fans most want to see, and they won't be disappointed.
The real surprise here is Ryan Reynolds, who ditches the wise-cracking hunk persona he's cultivated throughout his career and goes to some arresting dark places as the desperate and increasingly conflicted agent. The role doesn't require much of him, other than to look deathly serious most of the time, though it's quite encouraging to see just how well the hard-man character suits him. This could be the start of a new phase for the likable actor.
The rest of the cast, which also includes a few familiar South African faces such as Fana Mokoena, Jenna Dover and Top Billing presenter Aidan Bennetts in small roles - fulfil their character briefs, which range from "CIA agent shouting orders" to "man with a gun", competently.
The disappointingly low-stakes espionage plot relies heavily on CIA-agent-gone-rogue archetypes and pinches its dramatic storytelling and bloody aesthetic from pretty much the entire action catalogue: a bit of 24's intrigue, cut with a healthy serving of The Bourne Identity's fisticuffs, a sprinkling of Mission Impossible-style doom, and garnished with Fernando Meirelles' Rio-set City of God for its visual style.
Director Daniel Espinosa may not have anything new to offer the genre, but he sure knows how to keep his audiences' eyes glued to the screen.
Safe House's high body count and epic chase scenes keep the tempo at a high all the way through, though many South Africans will scratch their heads (or more likely snigger) at how a high-speed chase goes from Woodstock to the CBD in the blink of an eye - and did that guy just instruct Ryan Reynolds to go to the Metrorail station at Cape Town Stadium?! Just par for the course, it would seem. And then Washington straps on a South African Police Service uniform...
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What if they aren’t illusions? What if that dog really has a human foot – then what?
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