With Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson. Written by David Guggenheim. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Rated R (for strong violence throughout and some language). 115 minutes.
SAFE HOUSE is a serviceable thriller that pulls things from a host of other movies from “Three Days Of The Condor” to “The Bourne Identity,” but should satisfy those late winter cravings from action fans who haven’t seen enough bullets and fists flying onscreen. Denzel Washington combined with what – to American viewers – will seem exotic South African locations holds your interest between action scenes.
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA flunkie running a “safe house” in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a secure facility the CIA can use for their “guests” who need to be interrogated on location. Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is an ex-agent who went rogue a decade before, apparently selling secrets to our enemies. As the story begins, Frost has just cut a deal with a British agent to acquire some top secret and apparently very valuable files when he comes under attack. Seemingly cornered, he seeks refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town.
Weston, who has been desperately seeking a promotion and transfer to a more meaningful job, finds himself as “host” to Tobin and a team of agents ready to torture the traitor to find out what he knows. Suddenly, they are under attack by a heavily-armed group that seems much too prepared to invade this secret CIA hideout, and the chase is on. As the casting already indicates, Frost and Weston escape and will spend the rest of the movie sparring with each other while trying to stay a step ahead of their attackers.
What’s in the stolen files? Who’s got the secret agenda? When did Weston pick up the skills he utilizes along the way? And why does it seem Weston is being set up for the fall should Frost escape? The plot churns fiercely as the pursuit takes us from a soccer stadium to a shanty town to a remote farm house, locations that keep reminding us we’re not in the US, even if the actors are mostly American.
As the lead, Washington coasts through a part where he just has to seem smarter than everyone else on screen, taunting opponents while asking questions that make Weston increasingly doubt what he’s doing. Except for the action scenes, Washington doesn’t have to break a sweat, relying on his unquestioned charisma to grab our attention. He’s done more impressive work in the past, and will undoubtedly do so in the future. Meanwhile, Reynolds is an actor who has shown flair in light comedy and dramatic roles who keeps trying to transform himself into an action hero. If he’s better here than he was in last summer’s “Green Lantern,” that may be damning with faint praise. Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson (sporting an American accent) do what they can with their sketched in roles, while Robert Patrick and Ruben Blades barely register in what are little more than extended cameos.
“Safe House” is a cinematic safe house – everything is under control and whether you enjoy the experience will depend if you go there willingly or are brought in against your will.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.