If Hollywood has taught us anything about the CIA it’s that those bastards really can’t be trusted. The exception to the rule is that the lower the character is on the agency’s totem pole the more honorable and good they’ll most likely be. They’re naive idealists who have yet to be molded by the big, bad world into heartless, morally bankrupt pricks motivated by warped patriotism and self interest.
Which brings us to Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a low level agent stationed at the same, boring post for the last twelve months. He’s a “housekeeper” at a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, and every day he waits for a coded call alerting him to the imminent arrival of an incoming “guest.” The call finally comes when Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) mysteriously turns himself into the local US embassy after a decade on the run as an ex-agent turned traitor and killer. He’s moved to the safe house and immediately interrogated via water-boarding and harsh language.
But when the inaccurately named safe house is attacked by a gaggle of heavily armed men Weston finds himself tasked with his guest’s safety and on the run from killers both foreign and domestic. The result is a film that offers no surprises in its story or character arcs but still manages to thrill with some stellar action sequences and two talented and charismatic leads. (That’s right. Two.)
“I like this, you and me figuring shit out. Like the Hardy Boys.”
Safe House introduces its two main characters nicely and offers a glimpse into their respective worlds before they collide, but it’s from that point forward that David Guggenheim‘s script loses much of its luster. Weston’s driven to prove himself to superiors who doubt he can handle the situation, but what are the odds he’ll succeed? Frost is trying to escape his captor and pursuers, but is he really as bad as we’ve been led to believe? And who is the real traitor(s) at the CIA? If you still don’t know more than ten minutes after Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard appear onscreen then you really need to watch more movies.
It would be worse if the story and twists were dumb and insulting, but that’s not the case here as instead they’re simply uninspired and unsurprising. There’s no effort story-wise to stand out in the genre or offer anything beyond the predictable.
Thankfully, the film has two other elements at play to make up for that lack of creativity. One is a pair of very likeable lead actors. The other is an absolutely thrilling action aesthetic.
Reynolds has found himself in a bit of a slump in recent years and unable to lock onto a role that takes advantage of both his physicality (those abs!) and comedic abilities. Most of his more memorable performances have come in smaller films like Adventureland and The Nines while attempts at action-oriented spectacle (like Green Lantern and Wolverine) have fallen flat. He proves here though that he can handle a sympathetic performance that delivers in brief dramatic scenes and humorous exchanges with Washington while at the same time being a very believable action hero.
Washington (aka “the black Dorian Gray”) meanwhile plays a role that he can almost sleepwalk through at this point. The wise, weathered, and occasionally wicked old pro who’s misunderstood and/or under-estimated by those around him…this is Washington’s most frequently visited wheelhouse. But even if the character doesn’t feel fresh the actor still shines. He can play tired and beaten down, but when he comes to life the screen can’t help but respond in kind.
While the story and character beats are lifeless and dull the action ones are frequent and pretty damn memorable. From a gunfight and car chase near the beginning to some fairly brutal hand to hand combat later on the action scenes are impressive things of beauty. Fair warning though, much of the film is shot in the Bourne or Tony Scott styles meaning lots of cuts and a good amount of shaky cam. With the exception of one early fight I found all of it to be exciting and easy to follow. The film is definitely high energy, and the down-times rarely last long before the next bullet or body is sent flying.
This is director Daniel Espinosa‘s Hollywood debut after catching international attention with his Swedish hit Snabba Cash (aka Easy Money) two years ago. Too often a hotshot director from foreign lands is wooed to America only to completely lose themselves within the Hollywood factory. Think Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (who went from The Lives of Others to The Tourist), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (from The City of Lost Children to Alien Resurrection), or Oliver Hirschbiegel (from Downfall to The Invasion). Happily for both Espinosa and audiences, he’s avoided a similar fate and has instead delivered a fun and energetic thriller.
Safe House never even tries to surprise or outwit the audience and instead offers up the exact revelations and outcomes they expect. That would be enough to sink most films, but Espinosa’s eye for action and the personalities and presence of his two leads overcome the script’s deficiencies handily. We know exactly how things are going to end, but the joy (and some seriously cool action) is in the journey.
The Upside: Washington and Reynolds are charismatic and have great chemistry together; some spectacular action scenes including a car chase, gun fights and brawls; French girlfriend is quite pleasing to the eye.
The Downside: Just about every story and character beat is predictable and obvious; one very smart and capable character makes one ridiculously stupid move.
On the Side: Say what you will about Ryan Reynolds, but the list of actors reportedly considered for the role proves it could have been far worse…think Sam Worthington, Shia LaBeouf, James McAvoy, Taylor Kitsch, Garrett Hedlund, Zac Efron, Channing Tatum, or Jake Gyllenhaal.