Action film drags when it stops to explain itself

G.W. Clift

By A Contributor

The new Denzel Washington movie, “Safe House,” is an action movie. Oh, it is also a sort of reverse “Training Day,” with Washington’s character, who begins the movie at odds with a younger white colleague (this time Ryan Reynolds), actually helping the kid learn the job and ending the picture with the world better off for his exertions. But mostly it’s an action movie.

Washington plays a rogue CIA agent named Frost. We see him in South Africa, receiving a tiny vial from a rogue MI6 agent. Frost injects this into his own skin, sends a decoy off to be shot by a sniper, and then gets into a battle in the Gents’ with the first of a long run of attackers.

After finishing off the guy in the toilet, he chases off into traffic in a car driven by the Brit, who is shot. When the car wrecks, Frost is pursued on foot through a political street protest, a busy and very, very long restaurant, and into the U.S. Consulate, where they are surprised to see this famous traitor.

The film switches to Langley to show us three CIA administrators— Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), Whitford (Sam Shepard), and Linklater (Vera Farminga)—trying to decide what to do about Frost. They send in an “extraction team” (led by Robert Patrick) to move him to a safe house. The one available is maintained by spy newby Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who has earlier been complaining to his superior, Barlow, that there’s nothing going on in his professional life.

The “team” “waterboards” the tough Frost, though it is unclear what information they want him to give them. And the “waterboarding” isn’t as scary as one might expect. Anyway, before they get him to talk, attackers arrive at the secret safe house and kill the members of the “team.”

Frost, who we have been told is a master at getting others to do his bidding, has been talking to Weston and has talked him into taking him out of the safe house before the attackers can reach them. Car chase. Attack by prisoner on driver in car. Hotel room confab. Chase. Attack. Scene at soccer stadium. Cut to CIA HQ. Scene in South African “township” slum. Chase. And so on.

The action scenes, perhaps not surprisingly, work pretty well. They are set in colorful places, they are crisply edited, and a decent amount of imagination has been used in staging and filming them.

But as is always the case—ALWAYS—in action pictures, the story slows down to a complete stop two or three times for the characters to explain their motivations. Here is a thought for movie makers: maybe audiences don’t care what the characters’ motivations are. We’ll just accept that the stars are well-intended. Just don’t make them talk. When they chat, we lose interest.

And the motivation here—Frost has information damaging to other agents in all sorts of intelligence agencies—is a cinematic dead end that the film then has to visit with TV news broadcasts in its last reel. Who could care about this sort of stuff?

Nope. As long as “Safe House” is active, it is noisy fun. When it goes to explain itself, it is a drag. Director Daniel Espinosa knows enough to minimize the talking scenes. But why must we have them at all? This is like serving us Brussels sprouts regardless of whether we need or want them, and expecting us to pay for the privilege of getting them. There are also romance and mystery elements in the film, but neither of them seems original and neither entertains. So why are they included?

The space these plot warts take could have been spent pointing up the ways “Safe House” is a negative version of “Training Day,” a much better film. OK. So perhaps Espinosa was wise to avoid prompting the comparison.

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