Safe House

Universal Pictures

Denzel Washington leads spy-vs.-spy action so relentless, it gets to be a grind.

Essentially a two-hour chase with a few brief breaks to catch its breath, Safe House is an elemental cat-and-mouse game elaborated to the point of diminishing returns. Terse and understated, this is a spy-vs.-spy tale designed to minimize talk and maximize action, not at all a bad thing in movies but overworked to near exhaustion here. The presence of Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds will assure a robust opening for this muscular winter attraction, the stripped-down simplicity of which should play particularly well overseas.

David Guggenheim's nuts-and-bolts screenplay is mainly about one thing: A renegade CIA agent has information that some of the gang back in Washington might not want out there, so it comes down to their relentlessness versus his resourcefulness. Such a premise can be enough if the filmmaker in charge is a master of suspenseful minutiae, a born storyteller capable of elaborating any small situation into a captivating tale, a wizard with images and of stretching a yarn to just before the breaking point.

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Snabba Cash) is not on that level -- not yet, anyway -- though the style he employs to follow the far-ranging action, something resembling a surveillance camera surreptitiously eavesdropping, is entirely apt for the subject at hand. Especially when the action is outdoors and on the street, the slightly stylized coverage contributes a fresh layer of visual pungency.

Having been off the grid, as they say, for a decade, veteran agent Tobin Frost (Washington) is considered "one of the most notorious traitors we've got," according to CIA big shot Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard); he "turned" years ago and has been selling damaging information ever since. When Frost abruptly decides to turn himself in, he is remanded to the care of agency novice Matt Weston (Reynolds), who's been languishing in Cape Town, South Africa, waiting for a plum assignment; he's got one now.

Given his notoriety, Frost's got some tough and well-armed guys after him wherever he goes, perhaps especially now because he's got a tiny file containing explosive info that he has embedded under his skin.

With his charisma doing most of the work to envelop his character with the requisite alluring mystery, Washington nicely combines a world-weariness with a persistent alertness to the moment. Dramatically, the film hangs together well enough, but the repetitive nature of the action and lack of stylistic shadings and nuance ultimately prove rather grinding.

The relatively unfamiliar Cape Town-and-vicinity locations add a measure of fresh visual interest, while cinematographer Oliver Wood, who shot the first two Bourne installments, has worked with Espinosa to fashion an even more rough-and-ready style, abetted in its grunginess by production designer Brigitte Broch.

Release date Feb. 10 (Universal)
Cast Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick
Director Daniel Espinosa
Rated R, 115 minutes

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