Denzel Washington and his charisma glide through director Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House, a sporadically exciting (not for lack of trying) action thriller that puts an exceptional cast (Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard) at the mercy of a pretty flimsy script with fairly predictable twists. Ryan Reynolds (it’s been a busy year for Ryan—he should take a break) is a naïve, reluctant CIA operative stuck in the thankless job of being “innkeeper” at a CIA safe house in South Africa. After rogue ex-CIA agent Washington is apprehended and brought to the safe house to be interrogated (read tortured), some armed and very dangerous men breach security and manage to kill everyone except for Reynolds and his handcuffed prisoner Washington, who manage to escape amid the carnage. From here on in, the chases come semi-fast and furious (the automatic weapon-toting henchmen remind me of the armies in the Rambo films who manage to hit everything in sight-except their intended target) as the intrepid duo test each others’ mettle—not to say allegiances- while attempting to evade their murderous pursuers—who come in all shapes, sizes and nationalities. The movie works best in the scenes between Washington’s enigmatic, lethal prisoner with secrets and Reynolds’ reluctant captor. Washington is entertaining, even here on auto-pilot and brings out the “best” in Reynolds, who is earnest but overmatched; Gleeson, Farmiga and Shepard invest their roles with some verve and more than a little bite—almost successfully persuading us that they’re not marking time until something of value comes along.
In Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a plane carrying an oil drilling team crashes in the freezing Alaskan wilderness and seven survivors led by a grizzled, grim Liam Neeson (well, let’s face it, after working for this “team” as a wolf-killer, crash-landing and enduring dream-like flashbacks whose real import isn’t made clear till the end—he’s got reasons to be gloomy) try to survive despite the cold—and several wolves who would like to make a meal out of them (poetic justice?) One can see that The Grey is not aspiring to be a standard action adventure: the pace is a little deliberate and the opening scenes with the dispirited men at work and play in the harsh landscape, present an atmosphere of despair-even before the harrowing crash. Unfortunately, the lugubrious pacing continues after the crash, and on through the survivors’ attempt to elude the murderous wolves (hopefully avoiding the wolves’ den) and to live to fight another day. If this were a Twilight Zone episode, the trek would have been over in a half-hour, ending with the requisite (and in this case, not-too surprising) twist. However, Carnahan’s man vs. the elements saga aims for something deeper, as in a treatise on nature, faith, despair, and survival. This is fine, as long as the participants’ actions and dialogue are occasionally interesting. However, the clichés are lurking as much as the wolves: who’ll fall behind and be killed; who’ll drop his guard while standing watch and wind up as wolf-chow; who’ll go on and on about his family before a life and death situation-in which he comes out on the short end. (WARNING -SEMI-SPOLER ALERT COMING) Where the film departs from cliché is at the very end. If you’ve seen the ads, you’ve seen the picture of a determined Neeson poised to go mano a mano with the wolves. What Carnahan (as writer and director) does with this situation might cause you to feel you are either in the presence of a cinematic innovator—or feel cheated (I am in the latter category). However it makes you feel, be sure to stay until after the closing credits.