Let’s hope that Hollywood’s portrayal of the CIA is off, otherwise at this point every person with an appetite for action-thrillers knows exactly what goes on at Langley. “Safe House” is the latest “Bourne”-inspired romp featuring armed-and-dangerous Americans running, driving and parkouring through an exotic locale.
Mostly well-paced and featuring an unusual relationship between leads Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington, “Safe House” entertains and carves out its own niche, though it ultimately stumbles over its (and its genres) own predictability.
The story gives us Washington just how we like him—morally unpredictable. Tobin Frost is a longtime CIA field agent gone rogue who delivers himself into the protection of the U.S Consulate in South Africa to avoid some men who want him dead. Doing so puts him back on the CIA’s map and he is subsequently delivered to a local safe house attended by aspiring field agent Matt Weston (Reynolds). When the safe house is compromised, the two go on the run, but Weston must also keep the dangerous Frost in his custody.
David Guggenheim’s screenplay doesn’t hide much from the audience here: if a CIA safe house has been compromised, than somebody can’t be trusted, and the folks at the top (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard) are so cardboard that it hardly matters who’s to blame. Still, the ride there will suffice, especially when it features the Reynolds-Washington dynamic.
Washington is the archetype of ambiguity, which ironically makes him a little less ambiguous, but few do what he does well as well as he does. Reynolds refreshingly averts from his sarcastic hero routine to play a man who rises to meet the stakes while sticking to his guns all the same. Reynolds’ caliber wasn’t needed for the role of Weston by any means, but he does it well and proves his likable qualities.
Their exchanges mostly consist of Frost trying to impart his broken view of life and the Agency unto Weston and then we wait to see if Weston breaks. The only real uncertainty is what Frost’s next move will be as he tries to shake his “escort.” With a traitor in the CIA, we also know that wherever they go, someone will be after them.
Director Daniel Espinosa might not be a graduate of the Paul Greengrass School for Shaky Cam, but he definitely audited a good number of classes to say the least. Perhaps it’s the absurd degree of hand-to-hand combat featured in the film that evokes the “Bourne” comparison (or the chase atop the slum houses), but at the least it does not cheat on the action. There isn’t much spectacle, but that’s what makes it more in the thriller vein as well.
In general, Espinosa gets above-average grades for delivering the kinetic style necessary to make a basic riff on the cat-and-mouse thriller entertain. He would certainly do better with better material at his disposal.
There’s just enough fresh material in “Safe House” to keep the story interesting and the leads certainly help with keeping us invested in the outcomes of their characters. That’s more than most standard-order action-thrillers can boast, and “Safe House” deserves at least that much credit.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Written by David Guggenheim
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson