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Safe House
(1999)
 

Director: Eric Steven Stahl          
Cast:
Patrick Stewart, Kimberly William, Joy Kilpatrick


I don't watch that many movies that were made for a TV network (cable or otherwise) for several different reasons. One reason is that most of them (at least those made nowadays) seem to be about boring "true life" stories, or 50ish women having some kind of crisis and subsequently cutting loose into the world and bonding with other women their age. "With this new toy, I can watch from my house the movies at the drive-in across the street!" Another reason is that the production values of these movies tend not to be lavish, and practically scream, "Made for TV!!!" A third reason is that, even in many of the cable movies, they generally don't go very far in the violence and sex department. Safe House, originally made for the Showtime network, qualifies in both my second and third reasons for my general reluctance on TV movies. But like Evil Roy Slade, I found this TV movie to be another of those rare exceptions, one that actually captured my attention. Enough so that my wanting to sit through until the very end got me through a few problems in this imperfect but entertaining thriller.

This movie works, because the the people who made it clearly chose a project that would not be out of their limitations. No special effects are needed, no fancy costumes or locations need to be brought it. What they bring to the movie are things that you don't necessarily need a lot of money to bring to a screen; there's a script that brings us an original and engaging premise, and an interesting character that's brought to life by a lively actor. Of course, Patrick Stewart can't be that cheap, but I think you know what I mean. That is, if you have a good story and good actors, the audience will be more willing to accept anything else in the movie that may be inadequate. The movie isn't just smart, but made smartly as well.

Not long after we are introduced to leading character Mace Sowell (Stewart), a retired P.R. official for military intelligence, we can't help but wonder if he's a madman. Living in an affluent neighborhood in L.A., Mace has turned his swanky dwelling into a fortress, with every kind of sensor, alarm, and security camera setup you can think of inside and outside his home. That by itself sounds quite eccentric, but the strictly housebound Mace goes even further with his quest for self-preservation. He's hired a fellow to regularly break in and attempt to attack him, and these war games have not gone without hurting anyone. As his distraught daughter (Kilpatrick) blurts out, "You can't keep tying maids to water heaters, holding them at gunpoint, throwing them in the pool!"

In his defense, Mace claims to both his daughter and psychiatrist Dr. Simon (Hector Elizondo) that he really worked on an elite government execution squad, and he's afraid that a past client he worked for - who is now running for president - "So Shatner thinks he's the only starship captain who can cut an album, hmm?" wants to wipe him out in fear that he may spill the beans. Of course, nobody believes him, but he doesn't really mind being alone here. In fact, it's only because of the threat of a sanity hearing does he allow his daughter to hire Andi (Williams), an in-home caregiver for him. There is the inevitable clashing and arguing between the two, though Andi stubbornly refuses to be scared off by Mace's odd behavior. Gradually, the two form a kind of understanding - most of the time - though there are some unexpected things ahead. Plus, we still have to learn if Mace is crazy or if what he claims and trains for is justified.

I won't say what the truth turns out to be, except that the explanations for everything are very unlikely to be exactly what you may be thinking now - that is, if you haven't seen the movie before reading this review. That's because the movie makes a huge mistake by revealing much of the answer in the first ten minutes of the movie. True, there are some surprises revealed later on in the movie that make the final explanation more complex, but the heart is missing. If that fatal explanation had not been revealed, the movie would have been much more fun to watch. Many scenes could then be seen in more than one way, and it would have been fun to examine each sequence for a clue that might give some insight into the final answer. But since we have been shown that fatal clue, a lot of these scenes just end up being somewhat of a waste of time; we know what's going on, so why take time in showing us again?

Still, while the mystery might not actually be much of a mystery, there is still a lot in the movie to entertain us, including the relationship between Ross and Andi. It goes without saying that Stewart gives a solid performance in the movie as a stubborn and quite formidable foe. It's a daunting task to make a performance that can stand up to it, but Williams manages to do that. Wisely, she doesn't try to outshout or outmuscle Stewart. Instead, she gives her words a conviction that may not make them loud, but come out with a lot of force. She makes her character a determined one, one who may not be able to always win, but one who is persistent.

Their relationship reminded me of the one in They Might Be Giants, though at its worse it comes off more like a tribute than outright plagiarism of that earlier movie. The two actors have great chemistry together, not just when they are having a conflict, but when they start to get along better. And for a refreshing change, this movie doesn't try to have a romance spark between its male and female main characters, so this relationship is not only entertaining, but a more believable one as well. Things don't keep building from cold to hot gradually, but sometimes there is a step back or two along the way, just like real life.

This changing between hot and cold throughout is kind of the way to describe the movie's constantly changing mood. Of course, the movie's heart is essentially that of a mystery suspense thriller, but you wouldn't always know that. Sometimes the movie's tone becomes very sad, and it's a real credit to Stewart's acting ability that his character's reaction tHubba hubbao some sad facts can't help but move us as well. More often than not, though, the movie is funny. Even when the movie gets sad or more serious, it isn't long before there is a moment that makes you laugh out loud. The laughs come from many sources, like the disguises Mace wears when he has to leave the house to see his doctor or how he tries to discourage the people who apply for the in-home care position. Wisely, Stewart plays these scenes with seriousness and a sniff of dignity, which makes seeing this proud man in such crazy situations even funnier. I guess for some people, the movie may also be sexy, since there are several scenes where Stewart takes off his shirt. (Calm down, ladies.)

Stewart is the real reason to see this movie, not just the fact that the mystery is not only partially spoiled early on, but that the ending of the movie leaves some plot holes that become more apparent the more you think about it. His Mace Sowell character is one of the more fascinating characters I've come across in a movie - made for TV or not - for some time. Even though he spends about 90% of the movie only in his house or on the grounds, you are intrigued by him, and you wonder what his next actions will be. I guess it's no exaggeration to say that this character does a lot more for the movie than the movie does for him, though in fairness, the direction does remember to focus on him as well as giving the movie a sleek look. Safe House does have other positive attributes besides Mace Sowell/Patrick Stewart, and they all combine to make a movie that is satisfying enough. Still, I couldn't help but wish that I could not only see this character again, but in a screenplay that was more worthy of him.

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See also: The Ambassador, An Enemy Of The People, Ulterior Motives

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