Ah, at long last I get a chance to write my review of Safe House. I saw it just over a week ago, and since then it has grossed almost $100 million world wide. Extremely impressive. It should be mentioned upfront that Safe House is a straight up action movie, and since I don't want to waste your time delving into the critical merits of a film like this, that part of the review will be kept short. However, as many of you may be aware, Safe House was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa. You may also know that I am from South Africa. What you may not know is that I know someone intimately involved in the production, and who agreed to shed some very cool behind-the-scenes tidbits. My first scoop! The identity of my source will not be compromised, but hit the jump to read some of the cool things I learnt about Safe House.
The film follows your typical action thriller plot, twists 'n all. Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston a young CIA agent tasked with looking after a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a lucky bugger since we all know Cape Town is awesome, but he is bored and frustrated because he is stuck in the safe house all day long while his hot French girlfriend traipses about outside. Not to worry, because one day he gets a new guest: Tobin Frost, the baddest of bad-ass rogue former CIA agents pitches up, and chaos ensues. The next thing you know, Weston and Frost are on the run from heaven-knows-who through the streets of Cape Town, Langa township and even Malmesbury and surrounds. In the background are a few CIA bigwigs, keeping an eye from the control centre in Langley. There are portrayed by a posse of great actors: Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard.
Safe House is anchored by strong performances (Denzel is spot-on as always), decent action and a serviceable plot. However, the true strength of the film (from my unbiased perspective) is the accurate depiction of Cape Town. Most of these aspects will be highlighted in the latter part of this review, but I was quite taken by the effort put in to make sure the locations were properly presented. For example, there is substantial continuity between the chase scenes in the city; Langa township is real; Groote Schuur hospital is real; Washington's cop outfit is real; and Ryan Reynolds spoke Afrikaans exactly like an American learning the language would.Badly.
That said, Safe House came up short in some other departments. For one, I don't know what they did with the colouring of the movie, but the digital intermediary process added way too much grain and overdid the saturation completely. I am a fan of grain and I like saturated imagery, but this was too much and too often. If you think Tony "King of Color Saturation Scott" overdoes it, just wait until you get a hold of Danny Espinosa. Perhaps he took advice from the Unstoppable director, because Safe House is also shaken up by excessive hand-held footage and chaos-cinema editing. These are great tools in action movies, but too much of a good thing is exactly that: too much.
Verdict? A decent action movie that could have been even better. It's obviously popular enough, scoring a healthy 7.1 on IMDB and collecting almost $100 million in just over a week (it also topped the SA box office this last weekend). For me though, the really interesting bits are about how they did it. Coming from South Africa, it's a lot easier to notice tiny details that others may not pick up. I sent some questions off to my trusty source, and here are a few interesting trivia bits and pieces.
First, quite a few scenes took place within a CIA control room at their headquarters in Langley, Virginia. However, I happen to know for a fact that those scenes were filmed right here in South Africa. Indeed, the control room was recreated in the Three Arts Theatre in Cape Town. Why would they do that? Well, since Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga had to fly to SA anyway to film a few scenes, they figured it would be cheaper to recreate those scenes here too. It is also apparently cheaper to fill a room with South Africans than Americans. Ironically enough, some re-shoots were necessary, and those re-shoots involved the CIA control room scenes. By that time the crew was long gone from SA, and so all those involved were flown to LA, where a new set was built on the Paramount lot for the re-shoots. Those scenes were therefore filmed both in SA and the US, but clever editing and attention to detail means you will never notice the difference. I am also told that the sets were slightly different. Because they are so much better equipped in the US, the massive screens in the control room showed actual data, whereas in SA they had to use green screens. Pretty cool.
Near the beginning of the film there is an awesome and realistic car chase scene. It takes places in the streets of downtown Cape Town, and peaks on the last bit of the M3 highway. Now, the M3 is a very big and busy road, so I wondered whether all the accidents were filmed on location too. I am told (and this is by no means certain) that most of this sequence was filmed on location and that there were extensive road closures, but that some of the close-up crashes were filmed elsewhere and incorporated into the larger sequence in post production. These people are clever.
As I already mentioned, much of the South African aspect of the film was astoundingly accurate. I did notice one small oddity though. The number plates of the cars in Cape Town were wrong. Our number plates say, for example, CA-123-456, whereas the actively used cars would have CA-ABC-123. Apparently this was done so that no actual number plate would accidentally be used, or something like that. Kind-of like using non-existent phone numbers. If the Americans choose to err on the side of caution to avoid a law suit, they need not fret. That shit doesn't happen easily in SA.
Despite what you may think, all of the interior scenes in SA were actually shot on location and not in studio. The only "studio" scenes were the control room and the opening scene with Ryan Reynolds hitting a punching bag (that was filmed in LA too). The chase / shootout in Langa township was also filmed in Langa township. They may have built a few extra shacks to destroy, but it was all done right there. Another impressive feat, if you consider (1) that it's Langa and (2) the crazy camera work (crane and otherwise) involved.
On the topic of locations, the scene at the soccer stadium was filmed at Cape Town Stadium which was especially built for the 2010 World Cup. It also appears that the scene was filmed during an actual soccer match between Orlando Pirates (the guys in black and white) and Ajax Cape Town (the guys in red). I couldn't make out the players or anything, but it's another nice touch which adds to the realism of the experience.
Finally, and this is a really puzzling one, in the latter part of the movie there is a scene where Denzel Washington mentions Pinotage wine (he is a bit of a wino in the film), and how it's a great variety and so forth. Well, Pinotage is actually the only variety that is truly unique to South Africa. It is not at all well known elsewhere in the world. Was this scripted? Did Denzel add it himself as a personal nod to South African wine? I would bet my bottom dollar it's the latter. He spent 5 months in SA to prepare for his role, and no doubt took a liking to some of the local culture. If that is in fact the case, thank you Denzel. Ons hou almal van Pinotage.
And that's about that. Any other questions you can think of? Put them in the comments section below and just maybe you could get an answer!