Movie stars often bring the baggage of their previous efforts to new projects. We’ve now seen enough of Denzel Washington doing his Denzel Washington thing to be able to guess how any film he’s in will unfold just from the trailer. This isn’t necessarily a problem – if the movie can subvert our expectations, or at least do something new with the actor’s style, it will still be entertaining. Unfortunately, Safe House does neither of these things.
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a rookie CIA agent stationed in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s a “housekeeper”, the manager of a safe house used to hide the Agency’s assets and enemies. But he’s never had a guest, and is growing tired of the boredom and of lying to his girlfriend about where he works. His boss in Washington, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), tells him to sit tight for another few months – he might get a transfer.
Suddenly, an opportunity arrives. Tobin Frost (Washington), a notorious ex-agent accused of selling secrets around the world, walks himself into the US Embassy in Cape Town and surrenders. CIA HQ believes he’s carrying secret documents, so a military team brings Frost to Matt’s safe house and begins, uh, interrogating him. (Waterboarding – very trendy.)
Then the safe house is attacked by mysterious armed gunmen who have somehow been tipped off to its location. The other agents are slaughtered, but Matt escapes with Frost. Somehow, he has to get his prisoner out of the city and to another safe house nearby. Frost, of course, being a brilliant spy, isn’t going to make it easy.
Most of Safe House plays out like one of the Bourne movies, flashing back-and-forth between Barlow and the CIA execs-in-charge, who explain the back story by grumbling at each other, and Matt and Frost, who do the heavy lifting with kinetically-filmed punch-outs and firefights. It’s a familiar formula that mostly works until the final act, when too many loose ends are wrapped up by too many bullets.
Tobin Frost is classic “dark side” Denzel, with all the mercurial traits that Washington’s acting style has become known for. Everything he says is meant to unbalance others, and even when he’s just sitting there, chained to a pipe, you know he’s got a plan behind that flickering smile. But we’ve seen all this before, in other, better movies. It’s not really Washington’s fault – he’s as dependable as ever. It’s just that his mere presence tends to put us two steps ahead of the story’s plot twists, leaving us with plenty of action but no real excitement. (Someone also needs to tell director Daniel Espinosa that extra loud gunshots don’t make those twists any more surprising.)
Reynolds is sabotaged by his baggage as well. We’ve seen him so many times as a wisecracking know-it-all that he can’t convincingly pull off a serious, green, and naive agent like Matt. So, with our suspension of disbelief in both lead actors ruptured, we’re left to watch them go through the motions and wait for something interesting to happen. Not much does.
Safe House might have worked better if the casting had been different. As it is, you’ll probably come away from it thinking it’s a “typical” Denzel Washington movie. Which means nothing about it stands out.
Tags: movie review