‘Safe House’ Review (2012)


Safe House movie review

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House
Photo: Universal Pictures

The Bourne Legacy is hitting theaters later this year as Universal attempts to continue that franchise without Matt Damon, but Safe House sure feels like a trial run, or perhaps just an opportunity to get the target audience for that film in the theater in an effort to make sure they see the trailer for the upcoming August release. Either way, if the goal was to make a below average copy of a film we’ve all seen before then job well done.

Everything about Safe House feels recycled all the way down to the film’s poster (just look here) and the dingy, Man on Fire tint making it look as if the film stock was pulled from the worst toilet in Scotland. From a story and character perspective, it’s a film with big promises and very little delivered as each scene is no different from one to the next and often is essentially the same thing just in a different location.

And what’s the point of the whole thing? To tell us the CIA lies to the public and that years of covert operations turns you into a bad guy? It’s like The Bourne Identity meets The Ides of March, but it’s told in such an obvious, lackluster and bored manner that you really don’t care, and not even a bunch of adjectives can make it any better.

As the trailer tells you, Denzel Washington’s character, carrying the icey name of Tobin Frost (scary right?), “was one of the most brilliant CIA operatives” they ever had… Until he went rogue! Oh man, this is already amazing! Who is this guy?

We learn more.

Frost is responsible for the deaths of multiple agents, “he’s an expert in psychological manipulation” and guess what, he just walked into the American Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa and no one knows why… except for the audience, who is about ten steps ahead of this 117 minute chase sequence the entire way.

Next we meet CIA safe house stooge Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) whom we’ve just seen begging his boss (Brendan Gleeson) for a new position. He’s got a girlfriend with a job offer in Paris and he wants to follow her there, but he’s got bigger problems at the moment. The CIA has moved Frost to Matt’s location for safe keeping until they can ship him back to the U.S. But guess what, there’s about to be a cross-cross-double-cross and the you-know-what is about to hit the fan.

For the second time in the film’s first 15-20 minutes the same group of guys comes after Frost guns blazing and the chase continues. Matt is ultimately able to get Frost out of the safe house, but who can he trust? How did they know where Frost was? Is there someone on the inside tipping them off and what’s with all the sideways glances?

There are two major issues with this picture. The first is that the mystery as to who is tipping off these mercenaries is pointless, but the film insists on focusing on this idea. It doesn’t matter. Someone is pulling the strings, okay, we get it. All that’s left is to reveal who and it’s not as if there are a lot of options. Just reveal this bit of information early on and use it to tell your story, or perhaps director Daniel Espinosa’s goal was to have us focus on something else. Giving him the benefit of the doubt let’s explore our options…

Maybe we were meant to focus on that shoot out in the opening? Or maybe the shoot out in the safe house? The shoot out at the stadium? No? The shoot out in the slums or, I got it, the shoot out in that other safe house? Because if it wasn’t the shoot outs it must have been the multiple car chases. Either way, one runs smack dab into the other until they all blur together into one big hyperkinetic stew that looks like it was shot through mud.

I was fortunate to see Espinosa’s Snabba Cash (Easy Money) at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2010. That was the film that brought his name to the attention of the Hollywood suits as the film was picked up by The Weinstein Co. and Espinosa was even being courted to direct X-Men: First Class. It’s unfortunate what he ended up making was a lackluster knock-off of so many films we’ve seen before because it’s not indicative of what I saw from him previously.

As far as the acting talent on display, Reynolds proves he can actually do a little bit of acting, something we haven’t really been able to see from him as of late. Films such as Green Lantern and The Change-Up don’t exactly call on his dramatic skills to any level. And as for Washington, he’s fine. He’s not a problem. But his character is.

We are led to believe this Tobin Frost guy is some sort of CIA magician, but all we see is an aging old man that thinks he’s got mind control over everyone he comes into contact with. I will admit, he’s quite accomplished at holding himself steady when he’s stuffed in the trunk of a car that is zig-zagging every which way while going about 80, but other than that he’s simply a man with a gun and no conscience with the appearance of being more of a chatter box than an elite operative.

Safe House is an over-stuffed film with empty promises. It’s trying hard to sell itself as a Bourne-esque thriller, but when someone has already done it better and your Jason Bourne is a garrulous 57-year-old you tend to tune him out, and hope he’ll fall asleep while watching the five o’clock news.