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The spy who came in from the fold

BARADWAJ RANGAN
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STAYIN' ALIVE:Who knew it could be so hard?
STAYIN' ALIVE:Who knew it could be so hard?

Safe House (English)

Cast:Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga

Director:Daniel Espinosa

What time did you read this review? If an interrogator, tomorrow, buttonholed you with this question, you might reply, “While having lunch. Two-ish, maybe?” But a Hollywood thriller has little use for such waffling. Daniel Espinosa's Safe House informs us that the events under consideration started off on a Thursday, at 1.53 p.m., and when, the next morning, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) and Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) escaped from would-be assassins, it was 8.17 a.m.

What use does this specificity serve? Perhaps as a reminder that in the spying business every second counts, every minute you live is a gift from the heavens. It is hell, however, that trails Weston, the keeper of a safe house in Cape Town, as he attempts to prevent Frost, an information trader wanted for espionage in four continents, from being murdered. Alfred Hitchcock showed us in Torn Curtain how difficult it is to kill someone. Espinosa, here, is out to prove the opposite: how difficult it can be to keep someone alive.

Snarling men with guns are after Frost because he possesses a microchip with vital data. Will Weston foil their plans? Is Frost really the bad guy we are presented with? The answers are a nail-biter only if you've never seen a spy thriller (or, for that matter, a latter-day Denzel Washington movie).

The relationship between the stars is a pastiche of familiar constructs — Weston, the rookie lucking into a training day with Frost, receiving wisdom both professional and personal; the younger Weston, against all odds, earning Frost's grudging admiration; the masculine Frost squaring off with the feminine Weston, who is referred to as a ‘housekeeper'.

But the other tropes are equally battle-weary. There's treachery in high places. (Who could have guessed!) What keeps us watching, besides the non-stop action, is the top-drawer cast (including Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga, who bolster their template-moulded parts with undeserving dignity). Safe House , finally, is a sturdy endorsement of well-honed Hollywood professionalism. It could have been better, but at least it isn't worse.

BARADWAJ RANGAN

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