You know the safe house in Safe House isn’t safe (why would an action thriller call itself Safe House if it weren’t planning on completely ignoring the first half of its title?). Unfortunately, the movie itself is about as risk-free as you can get.
Junior CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is bored with his station in Cape Town, South Africa, practically begging his back-in-the-States handler (Brendan Gleeson) to be reassigned some place more worthy of the guy who played Green Lantern just last year. Careful what you wish for, right? In this case, the fates deliver Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a cool-as-ice renegade CIA operative who’s supposedly spent the better part of a decade doing unspeakably treasonous things. Frost is first seen making a deal for a mysterious microchip from an MI6 agent (Liam Cunningham) who says that being in possession of this little item will make him the target of seemingly every person on the planet who owns a gun. Sure enough, the meeting’s barely been over for ten seconds before Frost is shot at by some of those people with guns, which prompts him to turn himself in at the local consulate — where he’s put into the care of young agent Weston.
Since Frost is played by Denzel Washington, he’s of course impossibly charismatic and dangerously manipulative, quickly creeping out everyone at the safe house. Not even Robert Patrick — the freakin’ T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for Pete’s sake — can rattle this guy; Frost’s specialty happens to be interrogation and all of the sneaky (and sometimes violent) little tricks that go with it, so it’s he who asks the questions around here. He makes the relatively inexperienced Weston very nervous — and Frost just thrives on people’s nerves.
But before the mind games can really begin, the safe house is attacked by more people with guns who kill pretty much everyone in the place except for the young agent and his charge, who manage to escape in order to engage in one of the best car chases since‚ well, since the last great care chase you saw in a movie. From there, Weston and Frost are on the run, trying to figure out who’s trying to kill them and getting little to no support from the suits back in Langley, VA (which include Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard, though you keep expecting Joan Allen from the Bourne movies to at least walk by in the background).
Safe House was made by talented people. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, whose breakout hit Easy Money has yet to hit cinemas stateside, knows how to coordinate and choreograph aggressive action (though you’ll swear more than once that you’re watching a Tony Scott film). Cinematographer Oliver Wood also shot the three Bourne movies, and he brings the effective shaky-cam intimacy and immediacy of Supremacy and Ultimatum to the proceedings here. Denzel Washington can do this kind of role in his sleep (Tobin Frost is kind of a mix of his Alonzo Harris from Training Day and John Creasy from Man on Fire), but luckily he’s one of those actors who can make even unconsciousness seem compelling. And Ryan Reynolds takes a much-welcome break from the cocky smirking doofuses he’s been playing lately, delivering a nicely underplayed performance as he perhaps realizes that he’s there to simply play straight man to Washington’s showboating.
The problem is that, ultimately, there’s nothing really suspenseful or even interesting about the story of Safe House. You kind of know where it’s going right from the start, and — even worse — how it’s going to get there. It’s an enjoyable enough diversion, but you kind of just sit there as it washes over you, telling its by-the-numbers tale with little to no sense of tension because you’re already a good ten minutes ahead of whatever scene you’re watching at a given time. Even when David Guggenheim’s script becomes completely preposterous and the nonsensical in the last act, you don’t really care because you knew it would well before it actually did.
Now, if Tobin Frost had ended up really being the psycho son of a bitch that everyone thinks he is and not the misunderstood rogue hero you know he’s going to be revealed as (about two hours before he actually is), that would’ve been a challenging character worthy of an actor of Washington’s caliber — and a much more dangerous story for this talented crew to tell. Instead, Safe House is simply business as usual.