SAFE HOUSE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Stars: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleason, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Reuben Blades.

Denzel Washington is always good value, and lends strength and credibility to films, even some of the more formulaic and instantly forgettable ones like the generic spy thriller Safe House.  And even when he plays a villain he has such credibility and strength that we still root for him.
In Safe House, Washington again crosses over to the dark side as Tobin Frost, a legendary CIA agent who allegedly turned traitor, selling secrets to any nation or enemy agents. For fifteen years he has been one of the CIA’s most wanted traitors. So when he turns up in South Africa following a shootout in the streets of Capetown the agency suddenly goes on the alert. Frost is being hunted by some very nasty foreign agents, and seeks sanctuary at the US consulate.
He is escorted to a safe house nearby, which is being maintained by rookie CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) in his first mission since being recruited straight out of college. Frost is subjected to some vigorous interrogation, until a squad of heavily armed men burst into the safe house, guns blazing. But this is not merely a siege thriller along the lines of John Carpenter’s classic Assault On Precinct 13. Reluctantly Frost and Weston are forced to run and hide through the seedy backstreets and shantytowns of Capetown, and have to co-operate in order to survive. Handcuffed together and inherently distrustful of one another, they remind us of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the classic fugitive movie The Defiant Ones.
Meanwhile back at Langley veteran agents David Barlow (Brendon Gleason) and Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) monitor proceedings via high tech surveillance, and try to sort out what is going on. Barlow is Weston’s mentor in the agency, and tries to defuse suspicions that Weston and Frost are working together. It soon becomes clear that Frost is not the only CIA traitor with his own agenda.
Washington again plays the villain, and as with both the Oscar-winning Training Day and American Gangster proves quite effective and ruthlessly amoral when required. But here he imbues Frost with a nice ambiguity that suggests there is more to his character than we are told. And Reynolds, who has often played the glib, cocky romantic lead in a series of underwhelming romantic comedies, seems to be trying to reinvent himself as a credible action hero. He does well here and makes the most of his opportunities. There is plenty of banter between him and Washington that adds to the film’s atmosphere, and their scenes occasionally crackle with tension and suspicion.
The supporting cast includes Sam Shepard as CIA boss Harlan Whitford, Robert Patrick as a veteran field agent, and Ruben Blades as a former ally of Frost’s.
Safe House is a formulaic Hollywood action thriller with a high body count, lots of destructive car chases and shootouts with collateral damage. Red herrings, corruption and double crosses also abound in the sometimes muddled script. The debut feature script from David Guggenheim, Safe House has a number of holes in the plot. But he also cranks up the tension and the action enough to gloss over them. Periods of dialogue only serve to provide some more exposition before giving way to another action sequence.
Also making his Hollywood debut here, Swedish director Daniel Esposito (Easy Money) handles the gritty action sequences effectively enough with all the flashy style and kinetic energy from the Tony Scott school of filmmaking. He maintains a bruising pace throughout that rarely lets up. The film has been shot largely on location in Capetown by cinematographer Oliver Wood, and this exotic background adds to an otherwise formulaic action thriller.  Wood uses lots of hand held cameras during the many chase sequences which adds a kinetic energy and sense of immediacy to the material.
In the end, Safe House is a formulaic action thriller, albeit an exciting and enjoyable one. And it benefits from Washington’s imposing and credible presence.

***1/2

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