Featuring a conventional, by-the-numbers dynamic and story, but a crackling, intense momentum and execution, the Denzel Washington-led CIA thriller "Safe House" splits the difference between comfortably traditional and genuinely thrilling, leaving for an entertaining, but frequently overly familiar experience.
While the electrical propulsion of the film often wins out in the moment, there’s no denying that much of that brand of thrust is borrowed from the Paul Greengrass-led Jason Bourne films and other action filmmakers of the ilk (the editor and director of photography both worked on “The Bourne Supremacy” and it shows). Starting off with a shot and surrounded by the shanty towns of South Africa, “Safe House” opens up in Cape Town when legendary ex-CIA agent-gone-rogue Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) has suddenly surfaced much to the chagrin and shock of the intelligence community.
Meanwhile, rookie CIA “house keeper” Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is frustrated with his inactivity and banal safe house watching job. Recruited with flying colors save a DUI, Weston aspires for real-life case officer work, but has essentially been grounded in Cape Town for over a year with a house-sitting job that’s bereft of action.
That all quickly changes when Frost makes a deal with an MI6 operative (Liam Cunningham) for what turns out to be highly coveted and highly sensitive classified documents. When mercenaries turn up out of nowhere to assassinate Frost and the MI6 agent (who quickly meets his demise), the former intelligence officer is forced to seek haven in the local American embassy.
Quickly realizing they have finally caught and apprehended an extremely sought, high-level target – in the oddest of ways of course which raises all kinds of red flags – Frost is immediately sent to the nearest CIA safe house, an off the grid, secret location that acts as a detention center until the cavalry can arrive. And yes, it’s the house that Weston is keeping.
Before CIA brain trust (played by Vera Farmiga, Brendon Gleeson, and Sam Shepard) can even evaluate the situation too deeply, the safe house is attacked by mercenaries. It’s a ruthlessly professional hit, leaving no man standing other than Weston and Frost, who narrowly escape through a clandestine exit. Having witnessed CIA operatives viciously murdered in the safe house, Weston decides to man-up instinctively, recognizing this is his opportunity to show what he’s made of and charges himself with bringing in Frost to the brass. But of course, the brilliant, manipulative and canny Frost – who has eluded capture for two decades – has other plans. And so “Safe House” is then up and running, with Weston and Frost at odds while on the run from the contract killers who are somehow one step ahead of their every move.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out this is an inside job and the surreptitious data that Frost possesses is of the worst kind and completely damaging to several intelligence agencies, including the CIA.
Employing every Jason Bourne and Tony and Ridley Scott maneuver in the playbook, "Safe House" is often as generic as they come and at the same time, admittedly exhilarating in its action. But even as Swedish director Daniel Espinosa ('Snabba Cash") borrows, begs and steals from the ‘Bourne’ greatest hits arsenal, he creates a thrilling, taut and intense experience out of fairly predictable material and arguably outdoes the Scott brothers at their own game (especially of late). For one, Espinosa uses their blueprint as a menu, wisely jettisoning Tony's A.D.D.-riddled cinematic dyslexia and torpid techno rock, hewing closer to Ridley's version of action with the de riguer Greengrass discombobulation for good measure. But ultimately, it’s not enough, and the action sequences and fighting are far too customary even if presented in a deeply fierce and impassioned style.
Featuring a taut, but by-the-book script by David Guggenheim, "Safe House" shot to the top of the Hollywood Black List in 2010. But even as a page-turner, the virtuous newb CIA rookie pitted against a gone-rogue agent formula is instantly recognizable. Pick any recent actioner where youth squares off against wisdom and you know the formula of that dynamic (and even Denzel reversed roles when he fell into a similar set up in “Crimson Tide”).
Just shy of two hours, the thriller also does feel more like a lean and mean 90 minutes, so that’s saying something. And Espinosa continues to be one to watch as he pushes and grinds the gears of “Safe House” as far as they can go, forcing the story to the edges of its limits. But when the perimeter is already so largely defined, it’s difficult to accomplish much of anything special (“Snabba Cash” fans will appreciate the pre-lap audio and moments that similarly play with time, but it's not especially effective).
Yet, while engaging and energetic, the easily identifiable “Safe House” tropes do not make for the most surprising experience and lord knows if you’re looking for something substantive, the picture, on an emotional, humanistic and or political level, has almost nothing to say. This is an actioner with its ambitions on thrills, tension and excitement, and to that end the film succeeds, but only at the cost of appearing much like a sub-‘Bourne’ cousin with little innovation. [C+]