Movie Review: Safe House
As he nears 60, Denzel Washington has begun to carve out a niche as the grumpy or morally compromised foil to young, gravitas-seeking white actors.
His charisma menaced Ethan Hawke in "Training Day" and taunted Chris Pine in "Unstoppable," allowing both actors to look more impressive simply by surviving the encounter.
Entering "Safe House," Ryan Reynolds needs that chance to prove himself. Having failed to earn action-flick credibility with "Green Lantern," the actor had yet to show he can become more than a shallow good-timer we'll tire of after another rom-com or two.
If we're still unconvinced after "Safe House," it's largely because the film spends less time on the promising interplay between Reynolds and Washington than on generic spycraft action its makers aren't quite up to. As much fun as the movie occasionally is, it can't make its own drama convincing, much less give Reynolds the nudge he needs toward Matt Damon-ville.
Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a CIA newbie assigned to man a rarely used Cape Town facility. Every day he clocks in, checks the supplies and waits to see if he'll finally get something to do. Today he does: Amid much excitement, a squad of tough agents arrive to interrogate Washington's Tobin Frost, a top spy who went rogue nine years ago and has been selling America's secrets ever since. When the safe house is attacked by baddies bent on killing Frost, Weston escapes with him, trying to keep his prisoner alive on the streets until a presumably safer hideout can be arranged by CIA higher-ups.
Early on, David Guggenheim's screenplay proves willing to sacrifice sense for cheap action: With Frost out of sight in a car trunk (and his own face unseen by the assassins), Weston could calmly drive out of harm's way. Instead he speeds off, making himself the target in a car chase we've seen countless times before. Things get dumber before long, as Weston's faraway bosses expect him to take his wily, handcuffed captive into a packed soccer stadium without drawing attention to himself or losing Frost.
The script's climactic double-crosses are easily predicted by any fan of modern-day espionage. But less easily comprehended is the geometry of the movie's action sequences. Cinematographer Oliver Wood (who shot the "Bourne" films) finds exotic color and texture in his South African settings, but Swedish director Daniel Espinosa isn't as adept with chase scenes as "Bourne" director Paul Greengrass: We sometimes lose track of who's supposed to be where, and which direction the bullets are flying.
And where "Bourne" milked its Langley, Va.-based scenes expertly, "Safe House" does too little with turf-hungry spooks played by Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, and assigns chuckle-inducing dialogue to CIA chief Sam Shepard.
Back in the field, Frost does get precious moments to play with Weston's head, but the film doesn't allow Reynolds enough time to move through wide-eyed self-doubt to find the intelligence his character presumably possesses. He takes a pummeling instead. Turns out, it's easier for filmmakers to show an actor surviving should-be-fatal gut wounds than a battle of wits with Denzel Washington.