Safe House: Film Review

Universal Pictures
A gritty, repetitive extended chase through South Africa with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds well paired as corrupt CIA op and naïve agency greenhorn.

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's action-thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds is a two-hour cat-and-mouse game with a few brief breaks to catch its breath.

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 over-worked to near-exhaustion here. Star names 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.

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David Guggenheim's nuts-and-bolts screenplay is mainly about one thing: A renegade CIA agent has information some of the gang back in Washington, D.C. 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 minutia, 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--although the style he employs to follows the far-ranging action—something resembling a surveillance camera surreptitiously eavesdropping on movements and incidents not meant to be witnessed—is entirely apt for the subject at hand. Especially when the action is outdoors and on the street, the slightly stylized coverage is often managed from above, where a permanent camera might plausibly be positioned, a strategy that contributes a fresh layer of visual pungency.

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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 Tobin 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, Tobin'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's embedded under his skin. Be they terrorists, mercenaries or CIA ops, his pursuers force Tobin and Matt out of their safe house and keep gunning for them at regular intervals thereafter, which means very few minutes of Safe House ever go by with an exchange of fire or muscle power.

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Hovering distantly in the background is the contrast between Tobin's worldly cynicism and Matt's hitherto untested optimistic view of how life should operate. In the nasty world of ever-present assassins and the CIA, which complicates things further by sending two Langley operatives (Vera Farmiga and Brenda Gleeson) into the field after them, the naïve student has to catch up to reality but fast, which he does as the besieged men carefully make their way from the city to a township and, finally, to an isolated ranch for a final showdown.

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, the latter a constant requisite if Tobin is to survive yet another day. Reynolds does seem very green by comparison, and one can hardly blame him for wishing he could just get back together with his comely blond girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) in Paris, but being thrown into some extremely intense mano a mano combat situations seems to be just the ticket to make a man out of him. 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 Oliver Wood, who shot the first two Bourne installments, has worked with Espinosa to fashion an even more rough-and-ready style here, abetted in its grunginess by production designer Brigitte Broch.