Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds
(R, 114 min.)
"Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil." Thomas Mann
Some of them may be traitors, but they are no cowards – those CIA-trained-spooks bloodying up the screen in this internecine battle to the death. Too bad I can’t say the same for Hollywood.
Maybe the boys in Tinsel Town should take a look at the small screen and find out why such franchises as NCIS are doing so well. It’s not solely due to Mark Harmon’s sex appeal, certainly a nice bonus for those of us of a certain age. It has something to do with character development and perhaps a real look at our enemies.
In spite of what Hollywood would have us believe, America does have real enemies outside the inner echelons of the CIA. But recent cinema, with only a few exceptions would have us believe that America’s greatest threats come from the ranks of politically correct villains: unhinged Southern preachers, rogue agents within the CIA, and finally, let’s unearth those time-honored villains from nearly a century ago - the Nazis. The churning Middle East quite literally does not exist for these fellows. Even the film version of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, for example, eliminates entirely any references to Palestinian terrorists.
So too in this latest CIA bash, a point not lost on all critics:
“Are they kidding? We’ve seen the CIA vilified as a viper’s nest of felons, liars and mad-dog killers who all betray each other in dozens of other movies, all better and more gripping than Safe House." Rex Reed
“It’s hardly classified information that whenever the words “CIA agent” are mentioned in a movie, the modifier “rogue” will be in close proximity.” Liam Lacy
“Safe House is an overlong, underwhelming knock-off of The Bourne Identity - another generic spy thriller in which the "bad guy" (a traitor) is the good guy (because he's at war against corruption) and the "good guys" (government agents) are the bad guys (because they are corrupt)." James Berardinelli
Even Denzel Washington, portraying Tobin Frost, the CIA legend who has turned on the agency, seems a little bored with the clichés. In addition to that smile which lights up the screen, one thing I have often admired about Washington is that he is not afraid to shatter his good boy image, putting every bit of his charisma and lethal charm into his darker studies, such as dirty cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day, not to mention his cool as American Gangster, where he never wrinkles his well-creased suits even as he guns down rivals in cold blood.
But Denzel Washington never really gets his teeth into his role as Tobin Frost. Maybe that’s because the screenwriters can’t decide exactly what motivates the man. Is this man, who has sold classified secrets to America’s enemies with the same abandon Madonna treats her wardrobe, a sociopath, as Denzel himself says in television interviews? Or is he merely a modern version of John le Carré’s disillusioned Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where an eloquent Richard Burton described his profession with the cynical moral relativism that is now so in vogue?
What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?
Except that the 1965 version of le Carré’s glorious novel gets its cynicism the old-fashioned way. It earns it. Safe House never even tries. Certainly the film devotes little or no screen time to chronicling the impact of Tobin Frost’s ten-year crop of selling secrets, reflecting a smug narcissism currently in vogue. The only hand wringing is over the fractured personal lives the spy world creates, that same harangue we’ve been subject to ad nauseam in such vehicles as The Good Shepherd and The Debt. Get over it, I say. Spies aren’t the only ones who mess up their marriages.
But Safe House spends little time pondering even these side issues. It is more content to thrill us with gore and pyrotechnics, littering Johannesburg and the more squalid parts of South Africa’s Cape Town with charred and bloody corpses, not to mention a screen filled with self-conscious grainy imagery and the requisite shaky camera work.
If Washington’s work here suffers from high expectations, Ryan Reynolds profits from the low ones following his almost universally lampoonedGreen Lantern outing last summer. Maybe part of the reason for this is that his character is more clearly defined. Reynolds’ Matt Weston, like his counterpart neophyte, Ethan Hawke’s Jake Hoyt in Training Day, is out to prove himself. He has been holed up as a safe house keeper in South Africa for over a year, bored nearly to tears with no action to speak of. When it comes in the form of a CIA legend, whose glorious past is equal to his colossal betrayal, Weston’s drought-stricken world is suddenly a flood of blood and bullets. Yale educated, but naïve to a fault, Weston is nothing if not dogged.
And so this young man who will not give up or give in begins to grow on us. We struggle with him to see the right path in this murky field where no one can be trusted. In a field mired in nihilism, Matt Weston may be the saving grace.
Or maybe he is just the last man standing. You decide.
Before things go down and our spy-gone-bad is on the run, he meets his contact at a bar in Johannesburg, South Africa. If I’m correct, Tobin Frost settles for a glass of wine or maybe it’s scotch. Perhaps if he had seen the shadow of death stalking him, he might have enjoyed something less staid.
Well, let’s lift up a glass for him, that turncoat spy with the 100 megawatt smile. How about an African Delight, a sweetly decadent blend of Amarule Cream and Frangelico?
Sweetly decadent? Say, that certainly fits Tobin Frost.
African Delight Cocktail
Cocktail Variety: Nutty-Sweet
Cocktail Strength: Strong
Cocktail Size: Shot
Glass type: Shooter Glass
Cocktail Country: South Africa
Garnish: Ferrero Rocher® Chocolate
- 1 oz Amarula® Cream
- 1 oz Frangelico®
- Ice Cubes
Shake both ingredients with ice and pour into a shooter glass. Top up with a decadent Ferrero Rocher chocolate and serve.
Recipe Source: cocktailsoftheworld.com