Movie Review: Safe House
The Charlotte Observer
Crash. Kick. Stab. Punch. Talk (briefly). Smash. Chase. Screech. Shoot. Mumble.
That’s the wearying pattern of “Safe House.” Had “think” been an action verb, the movie might have risen above the knee-jerk excitement of the second-tier, “Bourne”-style spy thriller. But it never does.
Director Daniel Espinosa and writer David Guggenheim don’t divert for a moment from the standard-issue playbook for betrayals, high-level corruption, hackneyed dialogue and surprises that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has remained awake.
Worse, they never explain things that matter. Why did rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) quit the agency and start selling its secrets to foreign powers? Who accumulated the international list of corrupt spies he’s acquired, and to whom could he sell it? (Wouldn’t our enemies already know which spies they’ve corrupted?) Are we supposed to have sympathy for this traitor, simply because he’s more charismatic and more adept at killing than the people trying to kill him?
The CIA does briefly recapture Frost and put him in a safe house for interrogation. But when people with machine guns crash that party, Frost and inexperienced agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) go on the run to sort things out amid the auto wrecks and explosions. (Explosions which blow a man backward 20 feet and hurl him to the ground but don’t stun him. These are the usual invulnerable combatants.)
Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Liam Cunningham and Rubén Blades provide classy, useless window-dressing in supporting roles. Reynolds holds his own, slowly letting sweaty paranoia overtake innocence.
Yet the lone reason to see this film might be Washington. He always seems to think deeply, whether standing in contemplative silence or dealing in cool-headed mayhem. He’s so good that, for a while, he convinced me there was something to think about.
Over the last decade, he has taken fewer meaningful roles and become the go-to guy for atmospheric suspense dramas that haven’t much depth: “The Book of Eli,” “Unstoppable,” “Out of Time,” “Man on Fire,” “Déjà Vu.” Give him a bowl of gizzards, and he’ll whip up a fair chicken salad. But the main ingredients of “Safe House” turn out to be bones, feathers and feet.