It’s a shame that Denzel Washington doesn’t take on more projects. He may be getting up in years, but he’s still great fun to watch. Unfortunately it seems we only get one chance a year, and then it’s in something like Safe House. Even Denzel can’t save this movie from becoming yet another spy-on-the run story with more bang than brain.
The spy in this case is Tobin Frost (Washington), who has been on the run from his former handlers at the CIA for almost a decade. He meets with an MI-6 operative in Cape Town, South Africa, to purchase a microchip, and then inexplicably walks into a US consulate to turn himself in.
Across town, Matthew Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a young agent charged with maintaining a safe house, though he’s champing at the bit for a more substantial assignment. Sitting around the apartment alone all day answering the phone is beginning to wear on him after a year. But this is the house where the CIA extraction team is taking Frost. And in the middle of their interrogation ey are interrupted when another team of gunmen led by someone called “Vargas” (Fares Fares) busts in and shoots the place up.
In the commotion, Weston escapes with Frost, taking seriously his charge to be “responsible for his houseguest”. Meanwhile, Weston’s handler (Brendan Gleeson) and the handler of the extraction team (Vera Farmiga) get into a pissing match back in Langley to figure out just what is going on.
The thing is, we’ve seen this story before. Obviously Frost was pushed it and wasn’t really a traitor, and obviously the chip contains the evidence of the real corruption within the CIA. If you can’t make a good guess by now who’s actually behind Vargas’ team, you just haven’t been paying attention.
But an old story can be spruced up with a good interpretation or execution, but Safe House falls flat here too. There’s no new narrative twist here, and the visuals are nothing to write home about either. The graininess and soft-focus light is a good touch, but director Daniel Espinosa’s insistence on near-universal hand-held camerawork makes even quiet conversations look like an earthquake. In the action scenes it’s a jumbled mess that just looks like they’re covering for haphazard fit choreography.
But Washington does look good, and when he gets the chance he shows that he’s still got his chops, but this happens all too infrequently. Reynolds is solid too but, again, only when he’s not just there to walk the story along to the next fight, chase, or cheap shock. For a story supposedly about a master of mindgames, the extent to which they gloss over any real psychological issues is a real disappointment. There’s a girlfriend whose safety Matt worries for, but she’s never actually in danger. There’s a whole background file on him read on screen, but none of it ever matters. It feels like David Guggenheim’s script had a lot more to it that ended up on the cutting-room floor, if it was shot in the first place.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.