By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — What sparks most Sparks flicks are the sparks.  The romantic sparks, that is.

And that’s also the case in this latest romantic drama to emerge from a novel by author Nicholas Sparks, Safe Haven, just as it was in the seven previous movies (The Notebook, Dear John, The Lucky One, The Last Song, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle, and A Walk to Remember).

But the adaptation formula gets tweaked this time, and veteran director Lasse Hallstrom (Dear John, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, My Life as a Dog, Once Around, Chocolat, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules) delivers a movie that’s nearly as much a dark thriller as it is a romance, and that tucks a few intriguing and uncharacteristic surprises into the narrative’s hem.

(2½ stars out of 4)

(2½ stars out of 4)

Julianne Hough plays Katie, a young woman who leaves Boston in a hurry, boarding a bus and heading for anywhere else — this one’s heading for Atlanta — and leaving a guilty secret and enormous trouble behind.

When the bus stops in the small coastal town of Southport, NC, she disembarks with the intention of starting a new life there and quickly lands a waitress job at the local seafood shack.

Among the people she meets in this friendly little town are a general store owner named Alex, played by Josh Duhamel, a widower with two young children (played by Noah Lomax and Mimi Kirkland).

A romance blossoms despite their mutual reluctance -– hers because of the secret she harbors, his because he’s still grieving his wife’s tragic death -– and an angry, obsessive Boston cop (David Lyons) who continues to hunt her down.

But eventually Katie’s past will catch up with her and present itself as a threat to any future she might have with Alex.

Hallstrom, working from the adapted screenplay by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, moves things along at a leisurely pace consistent with the laid-back lifestyle on display on the picturesque coast of North Carolina, and he exhibits a palpable sense of place.

But he also gets unforced chemistry and natural likability from Hough and Duhamel — enough so that the over-reliance on calamity and coincidence that characterizes the extended climax is not as bothersome as it might have been in a less charming movie.

There are times when Safe Haven is perhaps a bit too much of an extended Hallmark card, but its heartfelt commitment to that level of emotional honesty -– undeniably shmaltzy but well north of sappy –- ought to please Valentine’s season audiences anyway.

So we’ll escape 2½ stars out of 4 for a romantic drama with a bit of an edge.  The combination of sentimentality and tension help Safe Haven simultaneously deliver a kiss and a kick.

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