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.
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.
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.