‘Safe House’ a well-acted action flick
You learn early on there’s no safe place in all of “Safe House.” From a dreary Langley, Va., to a sun-drenched Cape Town, South Africa, it seems danger lurks around corner, just biding its time to explode onto the screen in stunningly vibrant fashion. Such is the appeal, and saving grace, of “Safe House,” a “Bourne”-esque story about the horrible things agents sometimes do in the name of country.
“Safe House,” directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by David Guggenheim, is a surprisingly addictive action-thriller anchored by the powerful Denzel Washington. With the viciously efficient manner Washington portrays his character, Tobin Frost (great name, right?), a former C.I.A. operative who may or may not have betrayed his country, with the running and punching and killing, you’d never know he was turning 57 in December. Hell, a side character even calls him “the black Dorian Gray.” His sneers and intelligent eyes belie the fact that he is much simpler than the movie would have you believe. Yes, he’s a beast, but he’s as straight-forward as they get.
The main question running through “Safe House” revolves around traitorous allegations levied against Frost, a dangerous operative who C.I.A. officials has sold government secrets to the highest bidder. And after a low-key place setting in Cape Town, where Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), an novice C.I.A. agent, guards a local safe house, the movie blazes forward. Frost, having gone through the gauntlet of action-movie action (there were a lot of chases and gun shots), seeks refuge in the American Embassy, where he for some reason announces his true identity. He’s quickly swept into debriefing.
Plenty of scene jumping happens from here, a staple of the recent era of action films. While this tends to be chaotic and plot-destroying (this the “Fast and Furious” franchise), Espinosa and his editor Richard Pearson maintain a visually literate narrative and sense of time regardless of the speed of the transition. This is a godsend, because when a gang of heavily armored thugs breach the safe house in search of Frost — killing a bunch of American operatives in the process and sending Frost and Weston running — the movie shifts about at rapid-fire pace.
As with the deceiving depth attributed to Frost, “Safe House” tries to layer the complexity, seeking a “Bourne”-like political aspect, but it effectively is a chase movie that happens to be well-acted. Washington is the film’s center, adding a gravitas so intense you want to know more about this man than the good guy trying to bring him into custody. Still, Reynolds has broken out of a funk (remember “Green Lantern”?) and imbues his character with a realistic vulnerability.
The magic in “Safe House,” Washington aside, squarely lies in Espinosa’s brilliantly edited action scenes, which bounce between sprawling brawls to hand-to-hand combat in some claustrophobically tight places. This, combined with some talented actors and a washed-out color scheme, leaves “Safe House” a cut about the genre rest.
Four spying stars out of five.