You will not be surprised by “Safe House.”
It is pretty much exactly what it looks like. It’s an action exercise with two fairly dynamic leads, both of them taking visible delight in putting the other through their paces. It is a solid big studio debut for Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, and whatever merit the film has is due largely to his aggressive aesthetic choices.
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA operative looking to make his name inside the agency. He’s pulling a first posting punishment of sorts, working in a South African safehouse, tending this anonymous space every day and waiting for action that never comes. It’s been a year, and he’s seen no one. He’s done nothing. He is convinced that he’s fallen off the edge of the earth, and any calls he makes to his one DC contact, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), seem to be getting him nowhere.
Then trouble walks in his door in the form of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a former agent-gone-rogue who has been at the top of everyone’s wish list for the better part of a decade. He’s been picked up and he’s on his way out of town for debriefing, and Weston doesn’t have to do a thing to help. There’s an entire team of badasses led by Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick) tasked with getting some information out of Frost by tuning him up, and all they need from Weston is for him to get out of the way while they work.
If you guessed that bad guys show up at the safe house and bad things happen as a result, you would be right. if you guessed that most of the movie consists of Denzel being Denzel and Ryan Reynolds doing everything he can to keep his prisoner in custody while also running for his life, you’d be right again. And, yes, there are double-crosses and hidden agendas, and no, they probably won’t surprise you, either.
Even so, I’d recommend the film as an action programmer, a sleek and simple example of the pleasures of watching well-orchestrated mayhem and a couple of movie stars enjoying one another. I have a real fondness for movies where you beat the lead character into raw hamburger by the end, and Reynolds definitely takes his fair share of abuse here. Espinosa seems to take delight in heaping the abuse onto Reynolds, and he’s careful to make every car crash hurt, every punch land, and every gun shot sound like a nuclear bomb. The movie is cranked up, but it never tips over into the headache-inducing self-parody that Tony Scott’s movies exemplify, for example. Espinosa’s not just whipping his camera around because he has no idea what to do with it. He is all about the experience, about making things visceral, and he does what he does in the film with very specific effects in mind.
Denzel can play this kind of role like very few other movie stars, taking real delight in being the smartest guy in the room. I like how Denzel handles himself in action roles, with as little motion as possible. Everyone else in this movie runs through the gunfights, always frantic, burning energy. Not Denzel. He strolls through. He barely turns his head. Every bullet he fires goes exactly where it’s supposed to. There is nothing wasted in his work, and it makes him seem practically super-powered. By becoming so still, so focused, it makes him scarier, like a shark in a wading pool.
By contrast, I like that Ryan Reynolds is largely stripped of one of his main assets as a performer, that motor mouthed wise-ass charisma of his. His character in the film is practically wallowing in inertia, and so Reynolds plays him as closed-off, as a clenched fist who has been ready and waiting for so long that he’s not even sure what he’s waiting for anymore. It’s only once he’s on the run, finally in action, that he starts to come to life.
Just for the dynamic work by those two and the general sense of how Espinosa stages his action, I’m glad I saw the film. I think there’s a lot of fat on the movie, and the script by David Guggenheim is a little precious about doling out the “surprises” that will surprise no one. Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson are truly wasted in their parts, and every time the movie cuts back to them, it stops cold. I think Espinosa’s got a real career ahead of him, but he’s got to be able to pick better scripts in the future. If he was able to take this thing and turn it into something this solid, then with great writing, he could really shine.
For now, “Safe House” will do, but it would have been nice if all the good work here was in service of something not quite so… safe.
“Safe House” is in theaters now.