By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Safe House is a gritty action thriller about corruption that’s cynical, hard-edged, two-fisted, and only minimally interested in its own subject matter.
Denzel Washington, also an executive producer, stars as Tobin Frost, the CIA’s most dangerous traitor. He’s a renegade operative and suspected double agent who has turned, traded secrets with and sold military intelligence to enemies of the United States, and has been on the run for more than a decade.
In possible possession of sensitive materials that everybody else in the spy game wants, Frost is remanded to a CIA-operated safe house in South Africa, where he is subjected to waterboarding, then is targeted by a group of rebel soldiers from the neighboring region, brutal mercenaries sporting automatic weapons who are intent on kidnapping him.
Ryan Reynolds co-stars as Matt Weston, the facility’s rookie “housekeeper,” a low-level CIA op who yearns to be a full-fledged field operative and is frustrated with the backwater Cape Town post he has held for the past year, where nothing ever happens.
He wishes to prove himself, and this might be his opportunity.
Once the assassination squad has killed everyone but Weston and Frost, Weston sets out to move Frost to another secure location. So they barely escape, Weston stashes Frost in the trunk of his car, and they go on the run together.
Back at CIA headquarters, higher-up ops (Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson), and their even-higher-up, the assistant CIA director (Sam Shepard), scramble to make sense of all this.
Swedish director Daniel Espinosa favors jittery handheld camerawork and frenetic action for his Bourne-ish thriller. But he overdoes just about everything — the crowd scenes, the fistfights, the knife fights, the gun fights, the car chases, and the foot races.
The overly busy but underdeveloped screenplay by David Guggenheim, bereft of complexity, concerns itself only with connecting the action dots. When arbitrary incidents that serve the advancing story call for behavior by already-established characters that contradicts what has gone before, he doesn’t worry about it. Quality control be damned.
In the same way that Training Day exploited Washington’s persona, reputation, and previous roles to keep us guessing as to his intentions, so does Safe House. But after all the teasing, it never really pays us off. We keep waiting for Washington to bust loose and give us something dramatic or revealing to chew on, but the film never allows him to.
Despite the protestations of his reluctant and temporary partner and his best efforts to prevent it, Washington’s Frost, ever the master of the mind game, gets in the head of Reynolds’ Weston. If only the film got in ours.
So, with Washington delivering on charisma alone because that’s all the anorexic script allows, we simply watch the plot play itself out, with little narrative momentum down the stretch. In a blinders-wearing actioner like this one, actors of the caliber of Washington and Reynolds are severely, disappointingly underemployed.
Yet we can’t blame actors for phoning it in if the movie itself won’t have it any other way.
In the final analysis, this nonstop action flick, relentless in its pursuit of hand-to-hand combat but lacking dramatic tension to an astonishing degree, is a tiresome shoot-em-up that specializes in brutal fisticuffs to the exclusion of just about everything else.
So we’ll spy on 2 stars out of 4 for the excessive and hyperactive Safe House. In this particular shaky-cam fistfight, style downs substance with one punch.