Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
At its best, Safe House serves as a reminder that Denzel Washington is a true rarity amongst Hollywood’s leading men: an actor whose presence alone can bolster an otherwise perfunctory movie. And Washington has certainly starred in his fair share of those in recent years.
Beginning with 2009’s The Taking Of Pelham 123, the Academy Award winner last three films have been little more than glossy action films with mostly nonexistent souls; as good as Washington is in both The Book Of Eli and Unstoppable (a pair of 2010 releases), it’s tough to ignore the familiarity and dismissible nature of the films themselves. Safe House is more of the same, unfortunately, but not for lack of effort on Washington’s part—along with an equally strong Ryan Reynolds, he’s consistently magnetic, even as the Tony Scott-light action flick squanders its few electric wham-bam sequences with a cookie-cutter script.
For the bulk of Safe House, directed by first-time Hollywood worker Daniel Espinosa (whose 2010 Swedish action-drama debut Snabba Cash, or Easy Money, opened several stateside executives’ eyes), Washington is given a fascinatingly colorful role to own, though the same can’t be said for Reynolds. Washington stars as Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA asset who’s known for his badass physical and mental manipulation tactics (read: interrogations and hand-to-hand combat) and who’s uncovered top secret information that could destroy federal agencies the world over; Reynolds, meanwhile, plays Matt Weston, an up-and-coming CIA employee whose remedial assignment of babysitting a rarely used government “safe house” has him longing for run-and-gun action.
Which he gets, of course, once Frost turns himself in to evade ruthless assassins, gets brought to Weston’s spot, and comes under extreme gunfire in the not-so-safe crib. From there, Weston must protect Frost long enough for the CIA suits at the outfit’s Langley headquarters—played by an underused Vera Farmiga and an even more wasted Brendan Gleeson—to bring Frost to justice.
But is Frost really the bad guy, or is he more of a Robin Hood type looking to expose corrupt government officials? That’s the moral dilemma facing Weston, and for Safe House’s first hour or so, that conflict supplies Espinosa’s breathless, kinetic flick with ample intrigue. Too often, though, screenwriter David Guggenheim’s script pushes Washington’s Frost to the sidelines and turns Reynolds’ character into the main character spotlight, a damaging move, since Frost is easily the more intriguing of the two and Weston’s arc, despite Reynolds’ best efforts, centers around a vastly undercooked and annoyingly distracting love interest (Nora Arnezeder). Relegating Washington to a mere co-star as the film progresses, Safe House turns Frost’s icy charm into that of a one-note cipher, though, fortunately, Washington’s too good an actor to make it unbearable.
Also clouding Frost’s character development is Safe House’s overindulgence in frantic action set-pieces, an energetic trait that results in a mixed bag for those who evaluate these sorts of movies on the wow-factor scale. Espinosa, a filmmaker who’s clearly obsessed with quick cuts and herky-jerky camera movements, does nail a few of the film’s faster moments, namely a balls-to-the-wall car chase through the streets of South Africa’s Cape Town (where the majority Safe House takes place) and particularly brutal fight between Reynolds and The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman (a.k.a. Espinosa’s front-man in the aforementioned Snabba Cash), who briefly shows up as a fellow “house sitter.”
As Safe House proves, Espinosa should have a long, fruitful career making action extravaganzas in Hollywood, simply because he’s adept at mimicking every other similarly minded flick that’s hit theaters in recent years, most of which, curiously enough, have starred Denzel Washington. No matter who directs him in his next, inevitable high-octane flick of this type, let’s just hope that Washington flexes that star power to ensure that the project doesn’t play as by-the-numbers as this ultimately insubstantial time-killer.