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It’s difficult to talk about “Safe House” without evoking the legacy of the “Bourne” movies, the influence is that obvious. Stylistically, thematically, and visually, “Safe House” is definitely getting an invite to the “Bourne” family reunion. This isn’t meant to be a knock against the film, especially since the “Bourne” films are some of the best kick-ass action movies in recent times, this is a simple statement of fact. And director Daniel Espinosa’s “Safe House” is a solid, if by the numbers, knock off. Though it isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, “Safe House” is lightning-fast, and full of shootouts, brutal fistfights, and chase scenes. In the end, isn’t that what you really want out of an action film?
For those of you who’ve seen the previews and have questions about Ryan Reynolds playing a badass covert operative, don’t worry, he’s not. Matt Weston (Reynolds) is the low man on the CIA totem pole. His duties consist exclusively of babysitting an agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, a safe house that hasn’t been used, by anyone, in the 12 months Weston has been there. He spends most of his day checking in with his superiors at HQ and bouncing a tennis ball off the bare walls. Weston yearns for action, for an opportunity to prove himself, and boy howdy does he ever get his chance.
When ex-CIA spook, and notorious turncoat, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington)—Tobin Frost is a solid spy name, I must say—pops up and turns himself in, he is interrogated at Weston’s safe house. That’s the plan anyway. Turns out a gang of anonymous thugs have a different idea, and before anyone learns anything from Frost all hell breaks loose. The rest of the movie is a twisted series of Weston and Frost running, fighting, eluding their pursuers, and Weston lying to his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) and coping with Frost’s constant escape attempts. This is a CIA movie, and if CIA movies have taught us one thing it is that there is always, always a leak in the CIA. So there’s that to deal with, which only throws Weston and Frost from one hot-button situation to another to another.
Reynolds does a passable job playing out of his depth. You totally believe that he has no idea what the hell he’s doing, a fact emphasized by his “Leave it to Beaver” leftover wardrobe and baby face. Washington’s Frost is surprisingly funny for an ultra-serious spy. He’s calm, cool, and tough to rattle; he’s been here countless times before, and his glib gallows humor needles at Weston’s constant state of panic. Frost is a master psychological manipulator, and pokes, prods, mocks, and pries at Weston, sewing seeds of doubt, and piece by piece dismantling the young agent’s sense of self, duty, and his very system of belief.
You can’t help but notice Reynolds is out of his depth playing opposite Washington. At times you almost think that Washington was picking on Reynolds on set and they filmed it and stuck it in the movie. These interactions try to carry “Safe House” through the few moments of the film when no one shoots a gun, jumps from rooftop to rooftop, or punches someone in the face. These attempts don’t really work, and when things slow down for a moment, the pace flags. Luckily there’s not a lot of time wasted on story or character, and you’re back to the action soon enough.
“Safe House” is filmed in that herky-jerky cinema verite style that the “Bourne” franchise relies on, handheld cameras that attempt to place the viewer in the middle of the action. There are also many sequences staged in a tightly sealed control room halfway around the world as the CIA brass tries to assess the situation despite having no real perspective, as well as divining the best way to cover their own ass in case things go south. There is betrayal, disillusion, and a serious who-can-you-trust vibe. Who tells the truth, who speaks with a forked tongue, and is there any definitive difference between the two? As Frost says, “Even the truth starts to sound like a lie.” If that isn’t enough, everything from the color scheme, lighting, and grainy film stock harkens back to the “Bourne” ancestry.
However, despite the familiarity of “Safe House”, despite the well-trod international espionage trajectory, this is a movie worth checking out. If nothing else, you get to watch Denzel be a straight-up badass, both in fight scenes as well as moments of quiet menace. I can imagine worse ways to spend two hours. Frost is the kind of guy who will snap your neck in a bathroom stall or put two in your dome and not even look like it was anything out of the ordinary. There’s a great, if underused, supporting cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades, Liam Cunningham, and Robert Patrick; unnecessary explosions; and a chase through an impoverished slum, a las “Fast Five” and “Bad Boys II”. After all is said and done, “Safe House” is a serviceable kickass action joint.
Daniel Espinosa (director)/David Guggenheim (writer)
CAST: Denzel Washington…Tobin Frost
Ryan Reynolds…Matt Weston
Brendan Gleeson…David Barlow