[This post contains spoilers to Safe House and Three Days of the Condor.]
In Safe House, Denzel Washington plays a super-spy traitor on the run from a team of killers. In U.S. custody, he becomes the charge, enemy and mentor of as-spy-ring spy Ryan Reynolds. As crappy, mindless entertainment, the movie succeeds on all fronts: it’s entertaining, mindless and crappy. Its cast of high-level professional entertainers squeezes every drop of joy it can out of the ridiculously violent and predictable script. Denzel Washington must be able to play these sorts of characters in his sleep but, to his credit, he doesn’t; he’s classy enough to show up for the paying customers and do it right. After all, that’s part of what a movie star does — deliver his familiar personae well.
What makes the film really second rate though is the fact that it’s so incredibly derivative. “This isn’t so much a movie as a list of cliches,” as my pal Christopher Tookey wrote in Britain’s Daily Mail. It seems to lift scenes from every spy movie ever made. Stylistically, its main source is The Bourne Identity. Content-wise, it’s 1975′s dated-but-still-classy Three Days of the Condor — it’s virtually a remake, hold the class.
But just as interesting as the similarities between Safe House and Condor are the differences, the marks of thirty plus years. In both pictures, a low level CIA agent is isolated and on the run after his unit is brutally exterminated. In both pictures it turns out the bad guy is within the agency itself. In both pictures, the resolution includes our hero leaking the agency’s misdeeds to the world. In Condor, Robert Redford spreads the word through the New York Times, which was a newspaper in those days. In Safe House, Reynolds gives the info to CNN, from which I guess it then leaks out to a news agency and becomes public.
But here is what’s different. Although Three Days of the Condor is a stridently left wing movie, its hero is a patriot. The stateless assassin on his trail tells him to abandon America and work only for pay: “It’s almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There’s only yourself.” But Redford replies mildly, “I was born in the United States. I miss it when I’m away too long.”
“A pity,” says the assassin.
“I don’t think so,” says Redford.
As love of country goes, it’s not much, but for sophisticates like the LA-New York set, it’s downright George M. Cohan.