Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost
Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston
Vera Farmiga as Catherine Linklater
Brendan Gleeson as David Barlow
Sam Shepard as Harlan Whitford
Rubén Blades as Carlos Villar
Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau
Robert Patrick as Daniel Kiefer
Liam Cunningham as Alec Wade
Joel Kinnaman as Keller
Fares Fares as Vargas
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
A rogue CIA agent who has been hiding for years, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) one day turns himself in, and he’s brought to a safe house in Johannesburg, South Africa managed by low-level agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) for debriefing. When the safe house is attacked by a group of mercenaries, Matt finds himself on the run with Tobin, while trying to get to the bottom of who wants him killed.
There’s certainly a curiosity factor surrounding “Safe House,” a spy thriller directed by a Swedish filmmaker whose breakout film has yet to be released in the States, but the fact he was able to entice A-level stars like Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds certainly says something about the strength of the material, or at least one would think so. Or more likely, everyone involved, including distributor Universal Pictures, realized there was room for creating something on par with their hugely successful “Bourne” movies.
“Safe House” doesn’t try too hard to hide that main objective while creating more of a two-handed, modern-day spy thriller returning Washington to the role of anti-hero ala “Training Day” and “American Gangster,” disguising him under scraggly unkempt hair and beard while once again teaming him with a white guy to see if they can coexist and get through a dangerous situation.
Very early on, it’s established that Washington’s Tobin Frost is the CIA’s most dangerous rogue operative, a master interrogator who can get into anyone’s head and who has been selling secrets to anyone buying. Some might wonder why he would turn himself in, knowing he’ll probably be spending the rest of his life in jail, but that’s something never explained despite the overly-complicated set-up that takes some time for the viewer to catch up. Eventually, it becomes more obvious how Reynolds’ character, a CIA operative who has been managing a safe house who never gets to see much action, will be forced to step up and take control of the situation when Frost enters his life by the mere coincidence that his location is the closest to interrogate the rogue agent.
As hard as “Safe House” tries to be Bourne, it’s blatantly obvious that director Daniel Espinosa of the Swedish crime-thriller “Snabba Cash” is no Paul Greengrass and his sloppy attempt to mix the same handheld camera work with fast editing and a limited color palette makes for a film that doesn’t look that great. He certainly finds interesting ways of using the South African locations and the action scenes, particularly the car chases, are very well done. Although the first hour ends up being fairly predictable and by the books, there are enough good twists once it gets going, and Espinosa finds ways of throwing these surprises at the viewer in a way that has the fullest desired effect.
What tends to drag the film down and keep it from being a great action movie is that it’s very serious and it attempts to enhance the character drama via Weston’s tenuous relationship with his French girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) who doesn’t know what he really does for a living. Also not helping are scenes back at Langley with strong actors like Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard essentially giving a play-by-play of what’s going on in the field and dragging things down with exposition. Shepard’s presence does a lot to elevate those scenes, but it does little to counter any negative comparisons to the “Bourne” movies.
Neither Washington nor Reynolds really offer their most charismatic performances here, nor do they have nearly the chemistry Washington had with Chris Pine in his last movie “Unstoppable,” but their relationship is one that grows on you. The last act especially goes a long way towards making up for some of the film’s earlier shortcomings, especially when Joel Kinnaman, star of Espinosa’s previous film “Snabba Cash,” shows up as another low-level operative in the same situation as Weston. The fact that the film is really more about the arc for Reynolds’ character and to show how much he’s been changed by his time with Tobin Frost, and because this does work, one can almost forgive how long it takes the film to get there.
The Bottom Line
Those looking for a relatively enjoyable spy film with some solid action sequences probably won’t be too disappointed with the by-the-books nature of “Safe House”–those books being written by Robert Ludlum, of course–even if it does keep it from recommending it wholeheartedly.