Safe House and Watching Ryan Reynolds Before He Was Deadpool

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There’s a scene midway through Safe House, the 2012 thriller which stars Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, that hits entirely differently in 2021. As with any number of films starring these leading men, the stars are cultivating an oil and water relationship in the sequence, one built on mutual distrust and loathing as they drive across a countryside. But in the case of Reynolds, it plays differently than how modern audiences likely expect. When Washington begins trying to get under the younger guy’s skin—poking at his insecurities like he’s Ethan Hawke in Training Day or pretty much the entire cast of Man on Fire—Reynolds is visibly shaken. He then folds like a cheap suit.

“Go ahead, you’re not going to get in my head,” Reynolds’ Matt Weston protests as he seemingly holds power over Washington’s Frost character. “I’m already in your head,” Washington smiles back. “I’m going to isolate you, Matt.” And by watching both actors, you believe him.

The sequence is boilerplate thriller dialogue, a generic sequence in a generic movie (at least in the 2000s and early ‘10s). But to see Reynolds play it so straight and so differently from what his star persona would later become is slightly jarring. For the first time in ages, it feels like you’re watching the actor play a character who isn’t Deadpool.

This thought occurred to me while revisiting Safe House this week, particularly in lieu of the film trending so high on Netflix. While the picture was a modest success in 2012, earning $208 million worldwide off an $85 million budget, it’s easy to assume many audiences are discovering the film for the first time due to the globe’s most popular streaming service. And they’re seeing Reynolds in a way unlike any part he’s played in the last five years.

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That’s by design, of course. After being unfairly tarred by the cruelest parts of the entertainment press as “box office poison,” the actor who spent close to a decade fighting to get Deadpool made has embraced the Merc with a Mouth persona audiences love. It’s why his version of Pikachu in Detective Pikachu feels both earnest, yet glibly aware of his cuteness; it’s how Reynolds’ Michael Bryce can be as acerbic in his wiseacre sensibility in the Hitman’s Bodyguard films as Wade Wilson; and it’s why his steady post-pandemic hit, Free Guy (which has grossed $302 million as of press time despite the Delta variant), can have Reynolds be both completely earnest and self-aware since he is literally the only character in his world who knows he’s a video game NPC.

While Reynolds only fully breaks the fourth wall when he actually is in his red and black undies, all of these roles are in the same wheelhouse as Wade, as is the actor’s social media image, which has even created a joking alter-ego named “Brother Gordon,” Ryan’s alleged twin brother who sells Aviation Gin, a liquor the actor maintains an ownership interest in.

Which is why Safe House is suddenly so fresh now. Bittersweet, even. On its own, it’s a fairly standard (some might even say substandard) thriller wherein frantic editing and shaky handheld camerawork attempts to evoke a sense of real-world tension and espionage. Washington’s played characters like Tobin Frost before, and in better films, but Reynolds hasn’t played a straight man, or a character with a dawning sense of despair, in a long, long time. What’s more, he’s actually quite good in scenes where his Weston character—a low-level CIA employee that winds up having to both capture and team-up with Frost—is driven to cynical horror at his boss’ realpolitik manipulation, or where he must tell the woman he loves that he’s been lying to her for months and now must ghost her.

This is diametrically opposed to his character in The Hitman’s Bodyguard who has a similar frenemy camaraderie with Samuel L. Jackson on multiple road trips, and yet that guy remains perpetually nonplussed about the constant stream of shootouts and chases he’s in. He even has time to crack wise with Jackson about their rivaling badassery.

The first Hitman’s Bodyguard is a better film than Safe House, but that earlier movie is a reminder that Reynolds is more than just one persona. It’s easy to imagine Safe House is not one of the actor’s favorite films. It’s from that awkward period in his career directly after the notorious box office flop Green Lantern in 2011. Indeed, much of the recurring meta-textual humor in both Deadpool movies is Reynolds having a laugh at Green Lantern’s expense, mocking what it did to his career… including by making it that much harder for Reynolds to get Deadpool off the ground.

Ironically, Reynolds had kind of played Wade Wilson before Green Lantern or Safe House, but in such a bastardized form during X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) that 20th Century Fox became skeptical toward the idea there was a large audience out there for Reynolds to have his spinoff. Meanwhile, for every forgettable success like Safe House he was in, Reynolds was only getting mainstream roles in other troubled productions like R.I.P.D. (2013) and The Change-Up (2011).

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The irony is, however, that Reynolds was also doing some of his best and most diverse work during this period. Likely a contributing reason to him getting to play Hal Jordan was the box office success he had opposite Sandra Bullock in 2009 with The Proposal. But while that romantic comedy saw Reynolds dabble in the sarcastic wit which marks his earliest breakout success in the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (1998-2001) and his current run of hits since Deadpool, his character in The Proposal is not a smartass. He’s a put-upon employee who is driven by completely earnest and embittered estrangement from his father.

Meanwhile, outside of his would-be blockbuster fare which came after that hit, Reynolds was doing genuinely impressive dramatic work on the indie circuit. His one-man turn in Buried (2010), in which he plays a military contractor who realizes he’s been buried alive in Iraq and has only only a cellphone and 90 minutes before his oxygen runs out, is claustrophobic and viscerally terrifying stuff. Conversely, his depiction of a mentally ill man who begins hearing conflicting advice from “the voices” of his dog and cat in Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices (2014) is arguably the best work Reynolds has done in his whole career. In that dark comedy, he plays both sad sack Jerry with sincere pathos while also truly disguising his speech patterns by inhabiting the sinister voice as his cat Mr. Whiskers and his sagacious dog, Bosco.

Neither of those films were box office hits, obviously, and none of them earned Reynolds the kind of universal love that Deadpool did. As bleakly amusing as Mr. Whiskers is, that’s not a character who can sell bottles of gin. But being reminded of that more diverse talent now, even while watching something as pedestrian as Safe House, is somewhat nice. He’s gone on to much better mainstream entertainment since 2012, but Reynolds is still more than Wade Wilson. That’s worth remembering.

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