Denzel Washington has carved out a type for himself on-screen, stitching together intimidation, swagger, and charisma into one body like Frankenstein’s monster. His performances reflect in his all-out commitment to the role, and in “Safe House,” it’s no different. The movie itself is like a one-night standâ€”it’s pretty enjoyable in the moment but pretty generic and dispensable in a week’s timeâ€”but Washington’s potent presence elevates the dÃ©jÃ vu (which, yes, was the name of another one of Washington’s movies).
Washington plays Tobin Frost, a traitorous rogue CIA spy that went off the grid and has spent the past nine years selling government secrets to various sources. (He’s injected a list of every intelligence agency’s secrets into his abdomen, just in case he’ll need it.) Frost is apprehended in the U.S. consulate and transported to a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, which is run by a bored junior agent named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). When Frost arrives in cuffs and interrogated, the safe house is suddenly breached by armed gunmen, taking everyone out but Weston and Frost, who escape. Monitoring their agent from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, are Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), with conflicting views, under the oversight of head honcho Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard). They task Weston to hold onto Frost and bring him in, but that’s going to be easier said than done.
“Safe House” is a no-nonsense action picture that mostly delivers where it should. The “point A-to-point B” story is pretty simpleâ€”Weston is accused of aiding Frost’s escape, Frost might be a wronged man, and might there be a corrupt mole in the CIA?â€”and the pacing is fairly brisk and rarely wastes any time. In fact, to rush things along, the filmmakers have the CIA officers’ dialogue spoken over scenes with Weston and Frost. Still, it’s these talky exposition scenes from first-time screenwriter’s David Guggenheim’s script that are third-tier to the action.
Now, onto the action: Swedish director Daniel Espinosa handles the hand-to-hand brawls with an intense, bone-crunching crispness and shoot-outs and high-speed chases, one in which a handcuffed Frost is locked in the trunk. Most of the time, they’re well-staged, but other times, how can we tell when the action is shot in hectic shaky-cam style and quickly cut into jagged bits? The gritty, saturated visual style very clearly follows the shooting template of Tony Scott (who was worked with Washington five times), which matches the South African locale, but is rendered dingy and unattractive. This being his American debut, Espinosa is still untested as an action moviemaker and yet full of enough promise that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. He may be new to the genre, but has more know-how in giving an action sequence a pulse and a modicum of visual coherence than Michael Bay.
Washington never phones in a performance, not even here, but isn’t really stretching his acting muscles. It’s a calm-and-stormy role that he could play with intensity in his sleep (and in fact, did it even better in 2001’s “Training Day”), and at least he never loses that unscrupulous smile. The mini ‘fro is also an amusing touch. Even when he’s tortured with the technique of waterboarding, Washington casually asks “How long was that?” As Washington’s foil, Reynolds does what he’s asked, which is mainly physical. Giving comedic snark a rest, starting with his terrific, minimalist turn in 2010’s “Buried,” is both a gain and a loss for the growing actor as he shows confidence but little personality as Matt. Outside of the character being green and having a beautiful French girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), who (natch) doesn’t know he works for the CIA, Matt isn’t all that fleshed out on the page. Regardless, Reynolds and Washington make an interesting mismatched team. Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson (as well as Tracie Thoms and Sam Shepard) are obviously overqualified in thankless roles as CIA “big brothers,” similar to those of Joan Allen and Brian Cox in the “Bourne” franchise. But they don’t have to move much, don’t embarrass themselves, and get to explain the plot to us dummies.
It’s safe to say that “Safe House” will work as a “one-night-stand flick” to attract the macho fans of fast-food cinema. That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, but little of it’s anything special or memorable when Washington and Reynolds aren’t verbalizing and firing bullets.
115 min., rated R.
GRADE: B –