Sunday, June 17, 2012

Safe House Blu-ray Review

Safe House is a gritty and engrossing spy thriller that sports an excellent transfer and good supplements.  Click on the jump to learn more.
Safe House
A lot has been made of Ryan Reynolds since his franchise-ending performance in Green Lantern in 2011.  What seemed like a bankable actor in 2010 suddenly became a Hollywood after-thought.  Even a good rebound performance in Buried couldn't get audiences to come back.  That's why a meaty role like Safe House was just the thing he needed, proving to everyone that good roles and production values can bring almost anyone back from such colossal disappointments as Green Lantern.  Say what you want about him, but everything about Safe House is top notch.  

The Movie - 4/5
Safe House
Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a young CIA agent whose career is stuck managing a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.  A haven for agents on the run, those planning an operation, or those interrogating a prisoner, a safe house is almost like CIA's home away from home.  But, Reynolds doesn't see it that way, as his days are spent alone in the building while trying to keep his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder, Paris 36) from discovering his true identity.  All of that changes when super-agent turned traitor Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, Glory, Crimson Tide) shows up at the South African Embassy after being pursued by a group of mercenaries.  Frost has made a living on selling government secrets to the highest bidder, and his skills as a pure killer are only outweighed by his arrogance and cool-under-fire persona.  He's got a killer file to sell: a NOC-list of all dirty agents in the CIA, MI-6, Mossad, and other agencies, thus the pursuit by the mercenaries.  As the safe house is compromised, Frost sits in the interrogation chair chiding an agent to remember, "Time's a wasting.  Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock..."  As Weston is dragged in to protecting Frost, he's reminded by Frost, "Remember rule number one: you are responsible for your house guest. I'm your house guest."  These sorts of funny lines break up the intensity of the action without seeming silly or cliched.  

From the beginning of Safe House, the ride is intense and filled with plot surprises.  It's less about Weston protecting 'the asset' as it is a classroom lesson in becoming a super agent, with Frost as the villainous school master.  Weston learns these lessons the hard way, whether being shot at in a terrific chase scene after the house is compromised, in various hand-to-hand confrontations, or in the empty promises of gruff director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff).  His "We'll take it from here" line midway through the movie sends Weston down a spiraling road, challenging him to question everything he's been taught and every agent he meets.  The supporting cast is also stellar, including Vera Farminga (Up in the Air), Brendan Gleeson (Green Zone), and Ruben Blades (Cradle Will Rock).  Safe House is generally considered by critics as a ho-hum, middle-of-the-road thriller that looks and sounds Bourne-esque and features mailed-in performances.  Bull - this film is gritty and engrossing from the first frame, funny when it needs to be, but grounded in the distrust that people seem to feel towards certain aspects of their government.  Action sequences are intense, and Washington and Reynolds have terrific chemistry, which benefits Reynolds as his star power is once again fully re-charged (no Green Lantern pun intended).   Sure, there are problems - the NOC-list isn't fully explained until near the end, some of Washington's dialogue is muttered, and there's a Bourne Identity-like ending with Anna - but its casting, direction, and scale are solid, reminding audiences that action movies can and should have solid storylines, even if it looks and feels like other films we've already seen.

The Video - 4.5/5
Safe House
Safe House is presented in a 1080 MPEG-4/AVC transfer that does't miss a beat.  Frankly, it's one of the best transfers I've seen in 2012, because the grittiness of Director Espinoza's (Easy Money) film is retained in all its stunning style.  Every washed out white, every bit of grain, and every crushed color is perfectly and faithfully transferred to the home release.  Skin tone, blood, sweat, and even Washington's black and graying hair are clear against other elements.  Clothes look like they've been through the ringer, and smashed window glass and banged up cars look terrific.  What makes this a truly excellent product is all of these elements appear without banding, edge enhancement, or haloing.  In short, Universal has dutifully maintained the efforts of Director of Photography Oliver Wood (Bourne franchise), presenting a final product that celebrates every shaky cam sequence and every long shot in grand style.  I'm not sure whether the graininess of Safe House would transfer well to the new LED panels, which is why I'm hesitant to give this a perfect score.  But on my plasma, the effect was near-perfect.

The Audio - 4.5/5
Safe House
Universal once again delivers an impressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that helps set the tone of the film from the outset.  Explosions, gunfire, and the crush of hand-to-hand combat is powerful and lend an incredibly real-life aspect to the experience.  The LFE is amazingly aggressive, punching its way through almost every scene and resonating so often you feel like you are being chased along with Weston.  The score by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man) is happy to exist as part of the film's pulse without getting in the way of either action or dialogue.  I like it, but there's nothing memorable here, which was probably the intent.  The only thing that keeps me from giving this another perfect rating is Washington's mumbled speech at key points in the story - I'm not sure if this was intended as part of Frost's larger persona, or if readers of these reviews noticed the same thing, but several of our test audience members mentioned it.  However, the overall effect will leave you excited and at the same time relieved when the lights come up.  In this way, it's mission accomplished for Universal.

Supplements - 4.5/5
Safe House

Universal seems to be at the forefront with supplements and introducing new technologies to improve the viewing experience.  Safe House is no different, boasting a nice (albeit some frustrating) array of features, all offered in HD:
  • U-Control Features (HD): Although the interface is sporadic a little often for my tastes, Universal's U-Control feature cuts between many interviews with cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, stunt and fight choreography videos, and more. The other feature - titled "Scene Explorer" - appears once in awhile on certain chapters and provides access to storyboards and the 'B-roll footage' (sequences shot from the cars and other locations), which appear as a PiP window without audio from the film.  You can also expand these scenes to fill the screen which will then provide the audio track but not the film.  In the end, you could watch Safe House several times and engage each feature to see various aspects of production.  Such impressive software lends greater value to the disc when it comes time to fork over the cash at your local store.
  • Universal Second Screen Experience: One of the most interesting and at the same time frustrating experiences is Universal's Second Screen. You can download a 'Pocket BLU' app to your phone, tablet, PC or Mac, and sync it with the film.  When it worked, the app was awesome, allowing me to control every aspect of the film using my Wi-Fi connection and watch additional content while the film progressed.  However, the app kept shutting down on my iPhone, eventually causing the phone itself to restart.  A mixed experience, but hopefully it's a technology that will continue to evolve, as it has the possibility of providing a unique movie experience.
  • Making Safe House (HD, 11 minutes): The first part of the insightful featurette focuses on Espinoza and the script which originally appeared on the "Black List" website before put into production, then moves to the casting of Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington.  
  • Hand-to-Hand Action (HD, 8 minutes): The brutal and 'dirty' fighting sequences are broken down courtesy of Fight Coordinator Olivier Schneider, taking the audience through a detailed breakdown of how a scene is scripted and executed.  The great part is that every one of these highly choreographed scenes come off as less-polished than they really are, lending a real substance to the film.
  • Shooting the Safe House Attack (HD, 5 minutes): This quick but informative discussion centers around the breaching of the safe house.
  • Building the Rooftop Chase (HD, 4 minutes): Espinoza and his team discuss the roof leaping scene involving Washington, Fares, and Reynolds.
  • Behind the Action (HD, 8 minutes): A hodge-podge of the various action scenes throughout the film, we also granted a sit-down with Stunt Coordinator Greg Powell (The Bourne Ultimatum) and Espinoza. 
  • Inside the CIA (HD, 6 minutes): The realistic backdrops of CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia and the Cape Town safe house are featured, along with the insights of Technical Advisor Luis Falcone III, who served 30 years in the CIA.
  • Safe Harbor - Cape Town (HD, 9 minutes): The 'uncredited extra' of Cape Town is featured, along with the challenges of filming on location in and around the city.
  • My Scenes Bookmarking: This feature says what it does, allowing viewers to bookmark favorite scenes from the films.
While there are several versions of the film available, I suggest securing the Best Buy steelbook, which has all the features of the slipcase edition, but sports very good artwork (both exterior and interior).  The version I reviewed offered the Combo Pack with the slipcase and UV copy of the film. 

The Final Word - 4/5
Safe House
Safe House performed very well at the box office, securing over $200 million worldwide and returning Ryan Reynolds to Hollywood's A-List.  Denzel Washington's quiet rage of Tobin Frost is a nice balance to the film's gritty and intense environment.  The home release does not disappoint, with a terrific assortment of supplements, and a very good video and audio transfer.  It ranks in my Top 10 films of 2012, and near the top in the home release category.  Safe House is rated R for intense violence and language, and comes highly recommended.