Safe House: The Bourne Rip-Off

by Ethan Alter February 10, 2012 6:10 am
<i>Safe House</I>: The <i>Bourne</i> Rip-Off

The fourth installment in the Bourne series -- which will omit Matt Damon's Jason Bourne in favor of a new super-spy played by Jeremy Renner -- isn't due in theaters until August, but the franchise gets its first unofficial spin-off in the form of the new thriller Safe House, which stars Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds as CIA spooks. No, neither of them is suffering from amnesia or out to avenge the death of Franka Potente, but the film's depiction of the CIA as a hotbed of corruption and treachery as well as the handheld shaky cam aesthetic that director Daniel Espinsoa employs throughout, particularly in the action sequences, is very much in keeping with the Bourne legacy.

As with most imitations, though, Safe House pales in comparison to the real thing. Even the weakest entry in the original Bourne trilogy (which, for me at least, is the first installment, The Bourne Identity -- Paul Greengrass's subsequent chapters stand head and shoulders above Doug Liman's solid, but not exceptional franchise starter) easily outclasses Espinosa's knock-off, which is so thoroughly lacking in drama, tension and internal logic that you might as well be staring at a blank screen for the two hours it takes to watch the movie. Washington plays Tobin Frost, who went from being one of the CIA's top agents to its most wanted fugitive when he started selling information to the Agency's competitors and enemies. While meeting a client in Cape Town, South Africa, Frost is set upon by a heavily armed gang and, with no other escape routes available, he walks into the American consulate and reveals his true identity.

Instantly, he's whisked away to a safe house manned by novice operative Matt Weston (Reynolds), where he's supposed to be "debriefed" (i.e. tortured) until he coughs up details about all the intel he's stolen and who he sold it to. But wouldn't you know it, that pesky heavily armed gang shows up again, blasting their way into the safe house and killing everyone inside except Matt and Frost, who flee through the backdoor and out into the streets of Cape Town. Matt's mission is to get his prisoner from the compromised Point A to a supposedly safer Point B located outside of the city. In the process though, he's got to contend with the gunmen on their tail, his possibly duplicitous superiors back at Langley and, of course, Frost himself, who outmatches him in every possible way.

Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim try to jazz up the proceedings with a compressed timeline (the plot unfolds over a roughly two day period) and a generic MacGuffin -- a computer file -- that the bad guys are pursuing and which possibly holds the key to Frost's innocence. These elements end up doing very little to up the film's stakes or excitement quotient. At a certain point, the movie simply becomes a waiting game for Reynolds and Washington to complete the various levels in their live-action video game until they finally reach the last stage and defeat the final boss. While sitting there awaiting the all-too-obvious ending, I found myself imagining all the other movies I wish Espinosa had ripped off for this scenario instead of the Bourne flicks. These are the five versions of Safe House I'd rather have seen:

The Clerks Version
Meet Matt Weston (Topher Grace), a slacker first-year CIA agent stuck in a dead-end job as a safe house operator in Cape Town. On the one day of the month he's supposed to have off, Matt winds up having to cover his replacement's shift, which means breaking a date with his girlfriend (Amy Adams), who obviously can't be made aware of the nature of his actual job (you know, national security and all that). After a morning spent on the usual menial tasks -- scrubbing the dried blood of interrogated prisoners off of the floor, washing the one-way mirror and trading blowjob gags over the secured phone line with his buddy back in Virginia -- Matt receives an unexpected visitor, Tobin Frost (Donald Glover), the sarcastic agent that manned the safe house before him and is back on a bit of a nostalgia tour. In between hockey games in the hallway and debates over the merits of the Star Wars special editions, Matt and Tobin try to turn an ordinary day at the office into an exceptional one.

The Saw Version
Freshman CIA operative Matt Weston (Zac Efron) wakes up in a safe house interrogation room with a chain around his leg and a dead body on the floor next to him. A series of clues littered around the space indicate that he is the prisoner of Tobin Frost (Tobin Bell), a rogue veteran agent that's seeking to grab the attention of his bosses by taking out his former Cape Town colleagues through a series of creative (and very, very bloody) traps. Will Matt be able to free himself before Tobin's final trap is sprung? And just how many sequels will the studio be able to churn out before audiences get bored anyway?

The My Dinner with Andre Version
CIA safe house keeper Matt Weston (Ryan Gosling) hasn't spoken to his old Langley mentor Tobin Frost (Morgan Freeman) in a number of years. But when Frost is brought in under suspicion of selling secrets to the enemy and left in the interrogation room overnight, he and Matt have an entire evening to catch up with each other over a takeout dinner. The two walk down memory lane, revisiting their pasts and debating the merits of the path each has chosen. Morning comes and Tobin is put on a plane back to America, while Matt returns to his usual routine. It seems like nothing has changed, but maybe everything has...

The Day of the Dead Version
While zombie vampire hoards rampage outside, green CIA recruit Matt Weston (Anthony Mackie) has boarded himself up in his Cape Town safe house and tries desperately to establish a connection with Langley to find out what the situation is like in America. One evening, he's forced to open the heavily reinforced door when a small band of survivors led by more experienced field agent Tobin Frost (Samuel L. Jackson) comes knocking. At first, Matt is grateful for the company, but as their supplies dwindle and he clashes with Tobin's authoritarian ways, he begins to realize that the most dangerous monsters may not be his fellow humans.

The Tree of Life Version
Sitting alone in an isolated safe house, young CIA agent Matt Weston (Ben Foster) contemplates the meaning of existence through voiceover musings and numerous shots of a nature-themed wall calendar depicting the lush beauty of the natural world that he's rarely able to see, being stuck indoors all day. The arrival of prisoner Tobin Frost (Christian Bale) interrupts Matt's idyllic existence and the two spend lots of time warily staring at each other, rarely speaking aloud, as classical music plays and turmoil rages in their souls.

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