Movie review: Safe House ****
Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds are the stars of this first-rate thriller, but the real star is Cape Town. Cameraman Oliver Wood does a superb job of capturing the spirit of the city, with stunning shots of the landscape, that catch your eye but do not intrude on the gripping story.
However, it's not just about the beauty of the city. It's about the explosive car chases in the heart of Cape Town's CBD, on the city's freeways and also a thrilling chase through the shacks of Guguletu. I have never seen the city put to better use as a movie location. The stunts the drivers pull off are truly awesome.
The story is American-based. Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a "housekeeper", which is CIA slang for an operative who lives in a "safe house", in a nondescript suburb. It is used by CIA operatives who need an anonymous hideaway in which they can be easily reached and where they can hide safely. The place looks ordinary, but within the house is an array of technology through which encrypted messages and instructions are delivered. It's the shadow side of the official US embassy.
As the film starts, Weston has almost nothing to do. He's a low-level operative and his job is to keep his eyes open and pass on messages. He's formed a relationship with a French woman (Tanit Phoenix) and although he is itching to move on to a better job in the CIA, he's toying with the idea of making their liaison more permanent.
Things change when a gang of men break into the safe house, armed and ruthless. Weston makes a run for it, but he doesn't know what they want or why they are there.
The second storyline relates to Tobin Frost (Washington), a top CIA agent who has gone rogue. Weston is charged with finding and apprehending Frost, a tough call because Frost is a skilled spy and ruthless killer.
We get the sense that Frost has identified a flaw in the organisation, but the audience is not sure whether he is doing his patriotic best or taking vengeance on an unspecified person.
During the film, Frost and Weston form an ambiguous, fragile partnership into which they are forced, simply because they don't know who else they can trust.
It is so interesting to see Washington in this role. Most of the time he's the hero, sometimes a reluctant hero, but when he steps to the dark side, he's amazing. He gives a nuanced performance and his professionalism allows Reynolds to raise his game.
They keep the film racing at a breakneck pace. There is a chase sequence shot in the huge sports stadium at Green Point that was built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Director Daniel Espinosa does a spectacular job of capturing the chaos of the crowds during a shoot-out.
The story also takes us back to the CIA headquarters, where a group of spy-masters are watching the action evolve. Someone in that room is either lying or covering up someone else's lies.
The drama reaches its climax, no longer in Cape Town, but in a second "safe house", where another "housekeeper" is waiting for a "guest". But who will that guest be?
Accolades to the South African crew, who were obviously intent on beating Hollywood at its own game. Praise also goes to Reynolds, who no longer has to take off his shirt to make an impact.
It's a big, glossy international movie made on home turf, and it is great entertainment.