Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Safehouse; well, it's not that for starters

There's an unspoken covenant between idiots who watch thrillers and the better paid idiots who make them. We collectively agree that the movie is a towering ziggurat of implausible hogwash, and that the audience is just there to see things blowed up real good, and then the makers get on with blowing things up real good. I saw a trailer the other day for a film called Lockdown, which might as well be called Luc Besson remakes Escape From New York IN SPACE, and it seems to have got the memo, based on - hang on, there isn't a more unreliable piece of evidence than a movie trailer. Forget I said anything.

Anyhow, Safehouse, of which I've seen more than the trailer, DID NOT get the memo. Having an Oscar may exempt you from the memo, but what am I supposed to believe? That Denzel has some kind of magic field around him that exempts everyone else from the memo? Apparently that's actually how Safehouse worked, because once it's got up a good head of steam, it just drops all its wheels off and coasts to a halt in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. Whereupon, belatedly and for no very good reason, something DOES blow up, but by that stage I just thought the film makers were mocking me.

Safehouse uneasily straddles two different visions of espionage and manages to make both of them look implausible. In South Africa, we've got Ryan Reynolds' low rent world of managing a safe house and having no back up within twelve hours' flight. And in Langley, we've got the usual computer controlled ops room full of wide screens and anonymous drones who ALWAYS have the exact file you need ready to project twenty times life size. Actually, having worked for an actual real life organization with a central HQ and lots of out-offices, I CAN believe that HQ would be full of wonders while the out-offices wait for the miracle of running water and non-occasional electricity. The CIA being messed up and having its priorities out of whack; it's plausible AND it explains a lot, but it's where the two worlds meet that I kept losing my will to believe.

The big weirdness is right at the heart of the opening conceit. Ryan Reynolds, see, runs a CIA safe house in South Africa (apparently because plan A, to film it in a favela in Brazil, was considered too dangerous; there's nothing in the movie that makes South Africa more than scenery). The plot, such as it ain't, is that he'll get lumbered with Denzel's awkward customer and then things will go wrong and he'll have to - I dunno. Do exciting stuff and things. Like you do. Thing is, Ryan's running this resource completely solo. It's just vast, and it's obviously set up for 24/7 running and there he is, all on his own, working it like he's some kind of janitor on standard shifts. We see him opening the place up at the beginning of the day and he's got a life outside of it, so he's pretty much putting in a boring forty hour week at a facility which is never used. Even for an organization with its priorities out of whack, this seems crazy. Either you shut it down or you man it properly. And although he's supposedly solo and has no backup within reach, somehow there's still enough organization to have a bag stashed for him in a railway station locker with clothes in his size at a few hours notice….

I didn't have to worry about safe house logistics for too long because the safe house barely features. Honestly, Denzel's barely dragged into the place for a bit of water sports before all hell breaks loose, the joint gets trashed, and Ryan Reynolds has to go all Three Days of the Condor, with Denzel in tow. So there it is; house ain't safe, and it ain't hardly in the movie either. Mind you, at this stage it's still fun to watch, since being on the run starts out with a foot chase that turns into a car chase that turns into a punch up IN A MOVING CAR. Then Ryan crashes the car, and the whole experience deflates nearly as fast as the air bag. From there on, it's all Denzel being mysterious and looking for redemption and I don't know what all. It ends on my least favorite thing in the movies, the scene where the bad guy has got away clean and then comes back so that he can save the good guy at the last minute.

Among the many people wasting their talents in this movie are Vera Farmiga (who appears to be bound by some kind of geas under which she can only play middle ranking intelligence officers) and Brendan Gleeson (playing the only character in the movie who the audience can actually believe in, though you'd be mad actually to trust him). I'm still wondering what the heck they all thought they were doing. Was this supposed to be a chamber piece, in which Denzel and Ryan would match wits in a confined space (thus justifying the title, if nothing else)? Was it always planned as a bunch of action scenes strung out along a plot that doesn't make any sense as stuff actual people in that situation would do? Hard to know. There must have been a moment when they realized that staying inside the safe house for the whole movie would run the risk of giving them a hellish cross between Home Alone and the Waterboard Olympics, but once they'd had that dazzling insight, why didn't they take it the whole way? The big clue that they just did it by the numbers and didn't really care comes about two thirds of the way through, when Denzel goes to find a forger who can give him a new passport (and who can also, despite living in a shed, read the truly weird electronic gizmo that Denzel has literally pulled out of his ass (cheek)). The dude has an adoring wife and a couple of kids and we're painstakingly introduced to them, and I just thought "Right, Dead Extras Walking". Ten minutes later they'd been shot to bits. Kind of like my hopes for the evening.

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