Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay by David Guggenheim
Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patrick, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard
How long is Safe House? 115 minutes.
What is Safe House rated? R for strong violence throughout and some language.
A mostly exciting, sometimes generic, CIA action flick.
What is it about the Central Intelligence Agency that is so alluring for filmmakers and irresistible to audiences? Though cinema rarely portrays the CIA in a positive light, it doesn’t stop us from wanting to watch its agents trot around the globe, spying on terrorists and manufacturing elaborate plans to take down powerful dictators. Safe House is the latest CIA shoot ‘em up to come out of Hollywood and although it falls back on very generic action pic conventions, it still manages to fit in a few exciting moments in an overall decent movie.
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a relatively inexperienced CIA agent stationed in South Africa who is struggling not to lose his mind from boredom. Weston has been assigned Housekeeper detail at a Safe House that hasn’t seen a single houseguest in the twelve months he’s been pacing its rooms. His world is turned upside down one day when a team of agents brings in Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) for interrogation. Frost, who reluctantly turned himself in to the American embassy, is a former CIA agent who has gone rogue and is wanted for espionage in multiple countries.
As Frost’s questioning gets underway (with the aid of a towel and a bucket of water), another team of men (the same men who forced Frost to seek refuge from a barrage of bullets in the U.S. embassy) break into the safe house to kidnap Frost. Weston is left guarding Frost who tells him that either they leave or the men will kill him to get to Frost. They escape and Weston becomes responsible for one of the most manipulative and dangerous men in the world. In an effort to distract him, Frost begins messing with Weston’s head and looking for a way to shake him so he can continue with the job that brought him to South Africa in the first place.
Washington is a brilliant actor whose career has encompassed several truly great performances (Malcolm X, Detective Alonzo Harris). Why he has begun to appear in mindless, unchallenging roles in pointless action movies is a mystery. His talents are wasted in movies like Man on Fire and Déjà Vu and while one or two of these types of titles is forgivable, Washington has at least a half a dozen on his resume. Nevertheless, he is, as expected, quite good as the morally ambiguous Frost, using charm to distract Weston as well as the audience.
Though it’s hard not to be outshined when acting opposite Denzel Washington, Reynolds gives a good performance as Weston. Having success in the world of comedy, Reynolds has begun branching out and taking on more action-heavy roles as of late and they have served him well. His classic leading man looks and natural onscreen charisma make him attractive to pretty much every viewer.
Safe House is the first English language film from director Daniel Espinosa who is competent enough behind the camera. He’s wise enough not to intrude too heavily on the story and keeps the action sequences at a good pace. Thankfully, Espinosa stays away from employing the Tony Scott-style of filmmaking with washed out colors, unnecessary cutaway shots and MTV-on-cocaine cinematography. Though the film’s subject matter would lend itself to this approach, Espinosa instead offers a slightly less rushed style, allowing events to unfold more organically.
However, Espinosa and editor Richard Pearson do cut the fight sequences with the speed and recklessness of an ADD-riddled chipmunk. When the action pace picks up, the shot length drops dramatically, blurring the fights and becoming almost incomprehensible. This isn’t a total surprise as Pearson was also responsible for the opening car chase in Quantum of Solace that didn’t contain a single shot lasting more than half a second.
Screenwriter David Guggenheim has crafted a rather impressive first feature film screenplay. The characters of Frost and Weston are well drawn and given enough depth to be convincing. Most surprising is Guggenheim’s ability to tell an engaging story without an unnecessarily elaborate plot at its center. The only misstep on his part is the glaringly obvious red herrings in the form of the CIA chief officers back at headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) all speak and act as if they have something to hide. From the very start of the film, it is undeniable that one of them will be the bad guy which makes the rest of the film slightly less enjoyable.
Safe House has enough thrills to keep audiences entertained for two hours and just enough twists for some good discussion afterward. Will it be the best action movie of the year? No. But it also won’t be the worst.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”