The flashy Denzel Washington thriller Safe House will probably gross in a few hours what Steven Soderbergh's Haywire has made in several weeks, but if you like action you ought to catch both back to back. Soderbergh's film is a reaction to the jangled, high-impact style of Safe House and its ilk.
Which is not to say I didn't have a good time with Denzel and company's slick, state-of-the-art engineering. Safe House is fashioned to suit Washington's most successful persona: the bad guy who's so cool that he inspires you even as he poses a threat to the social order. He plays Tobin Frost, a CIA agent who wrote the book on modern interrogations before becoming the company's most notorious traitor. Now, he has no allegiances and no relationships outside of work — he only takes pleasure in old and expensive wine.
As the movie opens, Frost is selling especially incendiary intelligence in South Africa when he's set upon by unknown assassins — who are expert enough to scare him into taking refuge at the nearby American Embassy, where at least he knows he won't be killed. Promptly arrested, he's transported to a safe house managed by frustrated junior agent Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds. As Weston watches more senior agents interrogate Frost, the safe house is breached, and with gunfire coming closer, he finds himself alone with the soft-talking traitor, who tells Weston that he must protect him.
After everyone else is shot down, Weston escapes with Frost in handcuffs, not sure where he's going but committed to prove himself by keeping the infamous ex-agent in custody. Amid all the car chases and bullet dodging, Frost works to psych Weston out, in part by planting doubts about his relationships with his superiors and even his French doctor girlfriend.
By the middle of Safe House, I predicted every twist to come but was goggle-eyed anyway. Director Daniel Espinosa is a Swede who has studied state-of-the-art Euro thrillers by Luc Besson, and above all the Bourne pictures. Safe House is color-coordinated down to the glossy, tutti-frutti storage units in one of the chase scenes. It's full of jump-cuts and fights in which the careening, hand-held camera goes tight on the blows and counter-blows and glass-and furniture-smashing. The stunt work is superb, but the movie is focused more on jolts than the actors' athleticism.
Steven Soderbergh, on the other hand, made Haywire as a vehicle for Gina Carano, a mixed-martial-arts champion given to single-minded pummelings. And as one of the few major directors who work as their own cinematographers — under the name "Peter Andrews" — he's unusually sensitive to where the camera is in relation to the actors. Here, he explicitly goes against action fashion by keeping a respectful distance, allowing us to ogle his leading lady from stem to stern.
She's something to see. As an espionage agent betrayed by forces unknown, Carano doesn't move like an actor but an athlete — someone trained to channel emotion rather than exhibit it, to conserve energy rather than expend it. The fights are staged and shot so that we can almost but not quite calculate her next move along with her. She's always faster — and meaner — than we expect, ever ready to swivel, kick out a limb and squeeze a windpipe shut between rock-hard thighs.
Soderbergh tends to have one thesis idea per film and stick with it, sometimes to a fault. In Haywire, he's so wedded to that objective camera that parts of the film seem under-energized, making me wish for just one or two high-octane close-ups to put a nice brutal button on a fight. I prefer what Brad Bird does in 2011's best action film, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, cunningly alternating long shots to establish the bodies in the space with head-snapping close-ups. But I applaud Soderbergh for reminding us that action — like dance, like gymnastics — can be savored from afar instead of so close it makes us motion-sick. Who goes to movies to be sick?