The film is an enjoyable enough ride, but doesn’t offer much substance, or smarts, to go along with all the flash and bang.
In Safe House, Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, an expert CIA operative who went rogue and began selling trade secrets to the highest bidder, marking him as one of the most wanted men in the world. When Frost comes to Capetown, South Africa to receive a highly-sensitive piece of information from an MI6 contact, he finds himself surrounded by enemy assassins, with little other choice but to surrender himself to the American Consulate, lest he be shot down in the street.
The calculated risk lands Frost in a CIA safe house managed by rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who has been itching for a chance to prove himself in the field. Matt sees an opportunity in Frost – but barely a moment after his “house guest” has been secured, the safe house is attacked by the gunmen on Frost’s tail. Matt and Frost go on the lam, trying to stay ahead of their pursuers, while also entering into a deadly cat-and-mouse game of their own.
Director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money, a.k.a. Snabba Cash) has crafted a non-stop action flick that bounces from one set piece to another, with little time in between for things like character or thematic development. Espinosa’s directorial style is reminiscent of the over-exposed color palette used by director Tony Scott in his own Denzel collaborations like Man on Fire or Unstoppable - although, Scott’s directorial eye and skills are a bit more advanced than Mr. Espinosa’s.
Regardless, Espinosa proves to be a solid talent and handles the string of action sequences that constitute this film in a very competent and consistent way. Safe House could’ve very well been titled “Beaten Bloody,” because the action in the film is gritty, bloody, and often as not, extremely loud. The various martial arts duels are shot at close-range but are still discernible, thanks to a reliance on quick-cut editing rather than “shaky-cam” shooting style. The various fist-fights, shootouts and chase scenes are visceral experiences, and achieve a certain level of realism in how the characters react to injuries, battle fatigue, etc. Most action fans will be appeased.
The script by relative newcomer David Guggenheim stumbles through just about every spy movie cliche possible, without ever turning them on their heads or providing fresh insight into familiar themes like betrayal, the soul-eroding nature of professional deception, the ideal of patriotism vs. the reality, etc… Fans of the spy sub-genre will see a lot of the movie’s so-called twists coming from the onset – and beneath all the head-spinning action there is a clear lack of character and narrative development. We get some light strokes here and there whenever Matt and Tobin stop for one of their brief rests, but a lot of the story and character potential foreshadowed early on ultimately falls by the wayside, making the dramatic moments of the film feel unimportant, and by the time of the climax, unearned.
What elevates Safe House is the presence of Washington – who seems to be portraying a version of Tobin Frost who is complete and well-rounded in his head, if not within the actual movie we get onscreen. As usual, Washington packs depth into every facial expression or line he speaks, and he definitely makes Tobin Frost an engaging and interesting antagonist. Ryan Reynolds holds his own against Washington, and successfully sheds the cocky, wise-cracking persona he’s known for. Matt is a guy who is in way over his head and trying desperately to tread water, and Reynolds conveys that tension and strain pretty well.
The only downside of the performances is that the final evolution of the characters feels more forced than organic, but that’s a small caveat. There are also some notable actors in supporting roles – Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shephard (Black Hawk Down), Joel Kinnaman (The Killing), Robert Patrick - but most of these strong supporting players are underutilized in their bit parts (but again, small caveat).
It’s ok to recommend Safe House to undiscerning action movie fans, or those who are fans of the respective leads. The film is an enjoyable enough ride, but doesn’t offer much substance, or smarts, to go along with all the flash and bang.
Safe House is now in theaters.