Safe House details the cost of a world full of open information and technology through the eyes of two CIA agents. One is rogue, trading information as his grizzled persona has turned against the system that bred him. The other is a young upstart, eager for a promotion and better detail than a South African safe house.
The film is instantly breathless as the CIA takes hold of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) who volunatirly turns himself in after years of being on the run. His captors are chased and shot at, those who remain making the events personal. Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) only believes in orders, most of those surrounding Frost and maintaining whereabouts.
Shifts over the course of a two day run begin to become apparent, Weston catching on to the behind-the-scenes corruption, turning his idyllic view of government espionage into a personal vendetta. Frost doesn’t change, a cynical, cold world view staunchly delivered in Foster’s presence. While Frost carries the repercussions of his actions mentally, he keeps a tight grip on his end goal.
Despite a typical, almost predictable performance from Washington who has never shown any weakness within his craft, that character is restrictive. Foster on the other hand has concerns, a life with a girlfriend he must protect while remaining in the line of fire. He learns and grows, and shoving Reynolds on screen across from Washington shows an actor who is coming of age.
At a glance, the perception is of a Tony Scott film, fitted with a camera that doesn’t know when to stay still and an extreme visual filter. But no, it’s a relatively unknown Swedish director, Daniel Espinosa. What he may lack in carving out a niche of his own, he delivers in tense, elongated action scenes which use the location of South Africa purposefully. A rooftop shanty town foot chase is exhilarating, and crowded streets complicate the traditional car chases.
Safe House will twist and turn in ways that are probably obvious, just coming down to who is behind certain scripted predictable betrayals. The film rarely sits still long enough to make those elements apparent, and what is lacks in depth compared to the infinite CIA-driven thrillers today, it makes up for with a tightly focused relationship. Reynolds and Washington wrap the piece around their shoulders and carry it to a lively, energetic finish.
There’s not much Safe House doesn’t do visually. Extreme saturation will push flesh tones into a bronzing or chalky paleness. Primaries will explode off the screen giving Cape Town an almost Vegas-like exterior, as if most of the city is lit. Interiors take the opposite approach, still bright yet glazed with a murkier orange and teal palette. The latter isn’t as exciting, or that appealing.
Black levels will test your sets ability to dig deep, glazed with a depth that only serves to accentuate an already heavy contrast. Shadow detail is of no concern to this style, wiping out part of the image in a quest to dominate the frame. It’s as if the black levels and color are in a competition to see which will be more noticeable. They both win.
Universal’s AVC encode has a rough go of it, forced to buckle down and sit on a near record setting, fluctuating grain structure. Most of it feels added in post instead of at the source, but either way the intent is clear between clean/”dirty” edits. The result? Not much. The compression holds firm on its job to resolve what it pushed onto the screen, only a handful of shots appearing as anything other than a thick, heavy grain.
Through it all, the sight is not lost on superior detail. Sharpness pushes itself and produces outstanding levels of facial definition. Location shots are stunning too. It’s when the camera moves in close though that all of these elements, from the domineering black levels, artificial grain, and color come together to create a dazzling image, with few exceptions. This one is a winner.
Safe House does not have a one track mind in regards to its audio. While many mixes will shock the viewer with rumbling bass from everything to a pistol to a sniper rifle, Safe House takes a different approach. Pistols ring out with a crisp, outstanding pop. Assault rifles, well, assault the LFE with throbbing bursts. The mixture works beautifully indoors and out, scenarios the film finds itself caught up in often.
Elements are in full consideration of the visuals, presenting the audio with distance as needed, rocking when in close. Tracking is all precision, all the time. Bullets feel like they follow a natural path, which is certainly admirable considering the number fired. Echoes are bright and spacious, particularly one roadside that carries emotion behind it.
Given plenty of vehicular carnage, crunching metal is elevated to a superior status, this without loss to the environment. Crowded streets remain so in terms of the audio, even amidst the bulkiest of action scenes. A trip through a crowded stadium is fulfilling, not just for the crowd, but the abundance of vuvuzelas. It’s like being at the most annoying sporting even in the world.
Safe House is rigged with a bunch of smaller featurettes, most part of a singular approach to a making-of. It begins with a feature labeled (appropriately) a making of, a solid 11-minutes of behind-the-scenes material and on set footage. Head-to-Head Action details the fights and their choreography. Shooting the Safe House Attack focuses on the first shoot-out. Safe Harbor: Cape Town follows the location shooting.
Past that quadruple header lie some more traditional and promotional excerpts, like Behind the Action, which is pure marketing. Inside the CIA explores the authenticity, which surely must include computer screens that only display teal. U-Control options have two threads that pull from the above features, while Second Screen functionality is pushed. D-Box and BD-Live elements are offered for the taking too.