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Safe House
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay: David Guggenheim
Stars: Denzel Washington (Tobin Frost), Ryan Reynolds (Matt Weston), Vera Farmiga (Catherine Linklater), Brendan Gleeson (David Barlow), Sam Shepard (Harlan Whitford), Rubén Blades (Carlos Villar), Nora Arnezeder (Ana Moreau), Robert Patrick (Daniel Kiefer), Liam Cunningham (Alec Wade), Joel Kinnaman (Keller), Fares Fares (Vargas)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2012
Country: U.S. / South Africa
Safe House
Safe House If there is any weight or gravity in Safe House, a smash-and-crash espionage thriller set in Cape Town, South Africa, it comes entirely from the presence of Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost, a former CIA agent who “went off the reservation” nine years earlier and is accused of having spent that time selling American secrets to foreign governments. With a thick goatee sprinkled with flecks of gray and the steely stare of a man who has as much resolve as he has fierce intelligence, Washington commands the screen every time he’s on it. Even when he’s running for his life, he feels entirely in command, and he gives Frost layers of ambiguity that far outstrip the character as written in David Guggenheim’s potboiler script.

The problem is that Safe House isn’t really Washington’s movie. His character is simply a catalyst that triggers the ideological breakdown of the film’s central character: a young, untested CIA agent named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who is responsible for overseeing the company safe house where Frost is brought after he turns himself over to the American embassy while escaping a team of assassins who are trying to knock him off and steal a computer chip he has injected under his own skin. While Reynolds has demonstrated over the years that he is an actor of some range who has far more to offer than the sarcastic comedy with which he began his career, he still feels woefully outmatched by Washington’s verve, which makes his character seem even smaller than he should.

Weston and Frost are presented as diametrically opposed opposites: idealist/cynic, inexperienced/veteran, patriotic/traitor, and so forth. Amid all the crashing and burning and shooting and shouting and punching that takes up much of the film’s running time once Weston and Frost escape from the safe house after it is breached by the assassins, what we have is essentially a tale of political education in which Weston learns that his government (represented primarily by Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga as CIA handlers barking into phones and at each other in the offices back in Washington) is not the squeaky clean international justice machine he thinks it is, but is rather rife with corruption (to be fair, despite the indiscreet presence of waterboarding, the finger is not pointed solely at the U.S. government, but rather at all large governments that much use covert tactics and espionage to maintain power). Whether or not Frost is the true symbol of that corruption or something else is the film’s driving question, and your engagement will rest heavily on how much you invest in the character’s potential depth.

Helmed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa in his English-language debut, Safe House has energy and vigor to spare, but it still feels too off-the-shelf—prepackaged action and all-too-familiar riffs on the ugliness of behind-the-scenes international conflict. Perhaps sensing that the comparisons were inevitable, Espinosa has essentially surrounded himself with the creative team behind the Bourne films (editor Richard Pearson cut The Bourne Supremacy, while cinematographer Oliver Wood shot all three of them), and the result is a look that closely approximates that series’ gritty, visceral impact, but without the complex emotional and political engagement (Weston’s relationship with his French girlfriend, played by Nora Arnezeder, which is meant to further comment on the dehumanization required for espionage work, is entirely weightless). Wood’s grainy, high-contrast, bleached-out visuals give the film’s numerous action sequences, including a hectic car chase through the city streets, a showdown with Cape Town police at a crowded soccer stadium, and some truly brutal fisticuffs in a rural house, the veneer of immediacy, but that can only take us so far. Any time the film starts to flag, we get either a raggedly edited action sequence or a moment of gravitas courtesy of Denzel Washington, but the parts never entirely cohere, leaving us with flashes of inspiration in search of something a little meatier and a little less derivative.

Overall Rating: (2.5)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright © Universal Pictures

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