Friday, January 18, 2013

Worth Mentioning - Quantum of Denzel

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.
Cody talks up a couple spy flicks.


Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is an American living in Cape Town, trying to build a life with the French girl he's met while in South Africa. His girlfriend, Ana, has recently taken a job at a hospital in France and will be moving there in two weeks. Matt intends to follow her, he just needs to work out the details of a promotion he's expected to get from the clinic he works for first... Things aren't as simple as that, though. Matt does want to move up in his job, he's hoping to get transferred to France to follow Ana, but everything he's told her about his life and place of employment is a lie. He's actually in the CIA, sent to Cape Town to work as a "housekeeper" at a safe house. In the year that he's worked there, he has never had a guest at the safe house. He just sits around all day, looking at monitors that show nothing of interest and answering phone calls.

Matt's life is shaken up when yet another dull day at work is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a guest - Denzel Washington as a character with the badass movie name Tobin Frost. Frost is a rogue CIA agent, a notorious traitor who has spent the last nine years on the run, selling secrets. And now he's in custody. Right before giving himself up at the U.S. consulate in Cape Town, Frost had a meeting with an information-selling MI6 agent, who gave him a file stored on a capsule-shaped device that Frost then injected into his hip. Whatever is on that file is important enough that a mysterious employer has sent a team of relentless, well-trained, heavily-armed killers after Frost to retrieve it.

The henchmen raid the safe house, sending Matt and Frost on the run. The film moves quickly and is packed with exciting, hard-hitting action sequences - gunfights, car chases, brutal hand-to-hand brawls to the death. There are twists along the way, mysteries to solve, secrets to reveal. It runs for just under 2 hours, but if I had to guess the running time at the end I would've gone with 90 minutes.

Safe House is definitely a film of its time, with writer David Guggenheim crafting a spy thriller with elements reminiscent of its modern peers. As a low level CIA agent out to prove himself and now in a situation that could make or break his career, if he even survives it, Matt is faced with questions of how far he's willing to go and what he's willing to do. The things he has to grapple with aren't far off from the trust and moral issues James Bond dealt with in Casino Royale '06 and Quantum of Solace. At times, I was reminded of the line from Chris Cornell's Casino Royale theme song, "If you take a life, do you know what you'll give? Odds are you won't like what it is." The CIA corruption aspect brought to mind the Bourne films.

Bond and Bourne crew members are present here, with director Daniel Espinosa working alongside The Bourne Identity/Casino Royale second unit director Alexander Witt and The Bourne Supremacy/Quantum of Solace (co-)editor Richard Pearson. After seeing Pearson's name in the credits, I could recognize his fast-cut editing style, including jump cuts even during quiet moments and dialogue scenes. The action scenes aren't as disorienting as some of them could be in QoS, with less angles to cut between. The camera moves more erratically, with Witt shooting more along the lines of the shaky cam Dan Bradley displayed on The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum than his own smoother work on Identity and CR.

I'm not a big fan of the film's aesthetics, the murky graininess that was added to convey gritty realism or the fact that it's part of the current trend of often saturating the image in teal (which I do much prefer over the other current trend of coloring movies orange). Like the Bourne sequels, it also extends the use of shaky handheld into dialogue scenes, and I really don't like having the camera bobbing and weaving during simple conversations. But those issues didn't hamper my enjoyment.

I saw the movie theatrically last year, but while I liked it, it didn't make the Worth Mentioning cut. Rewatching it, I liked it even more, and found more to talk about when noticing the Pearson and Witt connection. Heightening my entertainment the second time was the fact that I watched it with my father and his girlfriend, two people who tend to get much more wrapped up in movies than I've ever been able to, at times reacting as if they're in the middle of the action themselves - jumping and/or exclaiming at surprise sniper shots or vehicular collisions, my father getting so involved in a moment where Matt has to choke the life out of an opponent that his girlfriend had to tell him to stop squeezing her hand so hard.

It's a pretty cool movie overall, a good one to put on if you're in need of an action fix.

THE DEBT (2010)

The Debt is a remake of a 2007 Israeli film called HaHov or also The Debt, the adaptation handled by Stardust/Kick-Ass/X-Men: First Class collaborators Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, along with The Men Who Stare at Goats/Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) writer Peter Straughan, and directed by John Madden. The John Madden who made Shakespeare in Love, not the football guy.

The story plays out in two different time periods. In the "modern day" setting of 1997, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds play Rachel Singer, Stephan Gold, and David Peretz, a trio of former Mossad agents who worked on a mission together in 1965/66 that brought to justice Deiter Vogel, an infamous Nazi surgeon/butcher who killed or disfigured thousands of people during World War II with his experimental procedures. While their objective had been to enter East Berlin, find Vogel, capture him and extract him from the country, taking him to stand trial in Israel, complications led to things ending in Germany, with Rachel shooting the escaping Vogel in the back. Concurrent with the publication of a novel telling the story of the mission, word leaks from the Ukraine that someone may have an alternate version of the events to tell, that the agents have been hiding a secret for the past thirty years. A secret so dark that David steps in front of truck when he hears that it might be revealed. It's left up to Rachel to deal with the situation...

And while she sets out to do that, the movie goes back to the '60s to show us the mission as it really went down, with Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington playing the three agents sent to find Dieter Vogel in East Berlin. Since the man believed to be Vogel is now working as a gynecologist, Rachel makes first contact with him to confirm his identity during a very uncomfortable and thorough examination.

The doctor and Vogel are a match, so the agents make their move during a follow-up exam. Once Vogel is in their custody, their plans begin to fall apart.


Performances are strong all around, particularly those from Chastain and Mirren as Rachel at ages 25 and 57, and as the mission goes south Jesper Christensen (who was the villainous Mister White in Casino Royale '06 and Quantum of Solace) is really given a chance to shine as Vogel. The longer he spends time as a captive, the more the character's true self begins to show through the kindly doctor facade as he plays mind games, tormenting the agents with his words, making them as miserable in the situation as their prisoner.

I haven't seen the original film, but this version of the story tells it well. Dark, serious, enshrouded in a thick layer of tension throughout, it's a very good, interesting spy thriller of the less action-oriented sort.

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