Denzel Washington is usually at his best when he plays men hiding secrets; characters with long, tired histories, the sort that affect the characters' personalities and decisions by the point we start watching. They're often relegated to the fringes of society, just outside of our mainstream understanding of social norms, existing there either by some unconscious choice or due to a difficult past, which instantly marginalized him. They tend to make the most fascinating characters to watch on screen, but they're also the most challenging to portray since we're expected to sit through 90-minutes of whatever it is that ails him.
In other words, there is no finer actor working today who can sell these types of characters better than Denzel Washington. Whether he's playing a crooked cop in Los Angeles, a blind messiah, a down-and-out boxer, an escaped slave, a prominent civil rights leader, or even a railroad engineer, he makes unsympathetic characters with dubious pasts into compelling ones that quickly win us over. Something about the seriousness in his face gives the dialogue, no matter how corny or contrived, a convincing gravity and sense of urgency. And 'Safe House,' which serves as director Daniel Espinosa's English-language debut,in which Washington plays a renegade CIA agent, is ultimately no different.
Hair all in shambles — and bravely showing quite a bit of gray, I might add — we first meet Washington's defector, Tobin Frost, which by the way has got to be one of the coolest names for a villain ever, making a deal with another rogue agent (Liam Cunningham). Soon after, he's being shot at and chased by an unnamed mercenary group which forces him to seek refuge in the American consulate. When moved to a safe house, he scoffs at Robert Patrick's interrogation method, which consists mostly of waterboarding, and gives us that devious little smile of his, signifying there's more to the character than simply being a wanted criminal. A little later, we're given the customary scene inside the CIA, with an immense screen covering an entire wall where someone behind a desk explains Frost's decorated record. Basically, the man's a bad ass, and Washington plays the role full tilt, chewing up every scene.
Opposite Washington is Ryan Reynolds, a low-level agent playing housekeeper in Cape Town, South Africa, who dreams of someday moving up the ranks to play secret agent in Paris. The rookie also has a girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), who of course is always kept in the dark about what Reynolds's Matt Weston really does for a living, which is mostly sit around an empty office bouncing a ball and waiting for something exciting to happen. It's a nice bit of characterization and background to remind audiences that he can pull off reasonably dramatic roles and take command of the camera, much like he did in 'Buried.' Reynolds actually holds his own splendidly, working against Washington's powerful performance with aplomb and never missing a beat.
The two men meet when Frost arrives at Weston's safe house, finally giving the kid a chance to prove himself to the agency by never losing sight of his house guest; he's determined to bring him in. By the time the two are on the run from mercenaries, Espinosa's action thriller runs the standard course of espionage films, where nothing is as it seems and a tactical force led by Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga is also pursuing the pair throughout South Africa. It's obvious Frost possesses a secret so dangerous that it can damage the agency and prove his innocence. And if you can't figure out the real bad guy by the end of the first act, then you haven't watched enough spy movies.
Yet, in spite of the plot's predictability and easily foreseeable conclusion, 'Safe House' remains terrifically entertaining and thrilling, jumping from one action sequence to the next with only a few pockets of respite in between. Admittedly, Espinosa's camerawork, along with Rick Pearson's rapid-fire editing and Oliver Wood's gritty cinematography, does feel somewhat like a cheap imitation of Paul Greengrass. (Coincidently, Wood worked on all three 'Bourne' films and Pearson assisted on 'Ultimatum.') Still, the movie works as a great way to kill a couple of hours and features excellent performance from Washington and Reynolds.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Safe House' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a code for an UltraViolet digital copy. The first is a Region Free, BD50 disc while the second is a DVD-9. Both are housed on opposing panels inside a blue eco-lite keepcase with a glossy slipcover. At startup, viewers are greeted by a promo celebrating Universal's 100th anniversary before switching to a main menu with full-motion clips and music.
In spite of its heavily-stylized photography, this freshly-minted AVC-encoded transfer of 'Safe House' looks fantastic on Blu-ray.
The 2.40:1 picture frame is awash in a thin layer of film grain, with some scenes looking noticeably thicker than others, giving the movie a rough, gritty edge. The color palette is deliberately oversaturated, with a strong yellow push, but the few perceptible primaries remain intact, and facial complexions appear natural for the most part. Through all this contrast is comfortably bright with a few sequences where whites run a tad hot without posturizing. Blacks are sumptuous and penetrating with good shadow detailing. Several nighttime scenes can be somewhat overwhelming, but it's all part of the cinematography without making too difficult to see in the darkness. The image is also very well-defined and distinct with excellent clarity and visibility of the smallest details in the background. Close-ups in particular are hugely impressive, making this is a terrific high-def presentation.
Things only get better with an amazing, near-reference DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that nicely puts the viewer in the middle of the action. Rear activity easily wins the show with lots of discrete effects which enliven the room. While the sounds of city traffic and the chatter of crowds are a great constant in the design, the echoes of gunfire and explosions are the instances which really make this a fantastic high-rez track, enveloping the listener with ease and a rather scary sense of realism. The music, especially, spreads into the back without issue and fills the room with an endless feel of drama and excitement.
The surrounds are marvelously complemented by a spacious front soundstage that's highly engaging. Movement between the channels is fluid while dialogue remains clear and precise amid all the loud commotion. Room-penetrating dynamics and acoustics keep each gunshot sharply detailed and wide-ranging, pushing into the high frequencies without the slightest hint of distortion. If there are any reservations, it comes for the low-end, which could go a bit deeper and with a bit more force. But as it stands, bass is appreciably tight and responsive, giving the music and action sequences some weight. It's just not very imposing, given what is seen on screen.
Nevertheless, the lossless mix is magnificent and sure to more than satisfy.
Bonus material is the same as the day-and-date DVD release.
'Safe House' is your standard espionage film in which things are not always as they seem, which can be to the film's detriment, making for a fairly predictable action thriller. Still, director Daniel Espinosa's English-language debut comes with several thrills and plenty of excitement, supplemented with a pair of great performances from Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. The Blu-ray comes with excellent video and near-reference audio. Bonus material isn't hugely extensive, but it interesting and insightful nonetheless, with a few nice high-def exclusives, making this a worthwhile purchase for fans and a strong rental for everyone else.