Safe House is a strictly workmanlike action film with two reasons to recommend it: Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.
The former shouldn't come as a surprise as he's good in everything -- lately, he's been the only good thing in his movies -- but the latter is surprisingly effective in a bounce-back performance after last year's dud, Green Lantern.
And while Washington dominates almost every scene he's in, he and Reynolds have a surprising amount of natural chemistry onscreen as rogue CIA operative Tobin Frost (Washington) and young CIA agent Matt Weston (Reynolds) who is trying to bring Frost in.
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Frost is the veteran agent whose years of doing CIA dirty work left him disillusioned and Weston is the rookie operative desperate to be more involved in the spy game. But what begins with an enthralling set up in which Frost outsmarts and outguns assassins, settles into a predictable mash-up of car chases, fist fights, head bumps, and shoot-outs.
Director Daniel Espinosa doesn't help matters with a theft (or is it a homage?) of Tony Scott grainy action sequences: tight shots on faces and cars, quick cuts, and a general sense of confusion that takes us out of the moment rather than sucking us in. The onscreen commotion might have looked good in the editing room, but blown up for the theaters it's discombobulating and heavy-handed; much like the work of Scott, who has directed Washington in five other films.
Safe House has some big names in its cast: Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of CIA bosses, Sam Shepard as the deputy director of the CIA, Ruben Blades as a former agent and friend of Frost, and former Bowling Green State University student Robert Patrick as a CIA interrogator.
There's a rat in this group, and it's not too difficult to figure out who it is -- despite the film's major attempts to throw us off the scent.
It's Frost the government is after, especially after they learn a memory card in his possession contains classified information about the CIA, MI6, and other allies and their clandestine operations. Frost plans to sell the information for millions of dollars, and someone is desperate to stop him -- so much so they hire a group of assassins willing to shoot up cars, homes, and anything that gets in their way.
Weston gets caught in the crossfire, almost literally, soon after Frost shows up at the safe house he oversees in Cape Town, South Africa. The film's South African setting presents the potential of interesting backdrops, but most of the scenery involves routine big-city shots of crowded streets and freeways with only the occasional cosmetic enhancement of a shanty town or desert landscape to remind you this is an international film.
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Weston has been stationed in Cape Town for a year and is bucking for a more important reassignment; meanwhile, he's in love with a French girl who is clueless about what he does for a living. The romantic aside occasionally gets in the way of the story, but at least the subplot, as minor as it is, isn't carelessly abandoned as is too often the case in action films.
Frost, a master manipulator who literally wrote the book on the CIA's method of interrogation, begins playing mental games with his captor, using Weston's own years of experiences and knowledge of the CIA against him. These are showboat moments for Washington, who excels at playing calm, steely eyed characters who are at their most dangerous in quiet moments. Washington continues a confounding trend of reinvention as an action-film star. It's a pattern of early year releases that dates to 2009's The Taking of Pelham 123 and includes The Book of Eli and Unstoppable from last year.
The Safe House script calls for Reynolds to mostly react to Washington, rather than go toe-to-toe with the Oscar-winning actor, which works to Reynolds' advantage and the film's core story of a veteran vs. rookie.
The two adversaries ultimately find themselves allied against a common enemy as they scramble to escape the safe house after it's breached by the assassins. Once on the road, Weston and Frost are trying to stay ahead of their killers, with Weston trying to get them to a new safe house, while Frost remains vigilant on ways to escape. His method of eluding Weston at a packed stadium soccer match is particularly ingenious.
David Guggenheim's script provides a few such clever moments, but most of the story centers around run-of-the-mill action sequences followed by quiet character-development moments or important plot revelations. It's the quieter moments that work best, when Washington and Reynolds settle into a groove as actors. Otherwise, Safe House is formulaic and routine. Given how well Washington and Reynolds worked together in this film, it's disappointing they didn't have more to work with.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Written by David Guggenheim. A Universal release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for strong violence throughout and some language. Running time: 115 minutes.
Critic's rating: ** 1/2
Tobin Frost ........... Denzel Washington
Matt Weston ............ Ryan Reynolds
Catherine Linklater ............Vera Farmiga
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.