Film Review: Safe House

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds play cat-and-mouse in an autopilot CIA thriller that tilts at political relevance but contents itself with aping Tony Scott mannerisms.

In a better world, things would be different. Ryan Reynolds would realize that comedy is his true calling, no matter how much fun it is to tear around the place in a torn T-shirt waving a semiautomatic. Denzel Washington would remember that he needn’t always be the eye of the hurricane, and maybe some character work would find him. Producers would stop trying to copy the Tony Scott look and just hire the guy. Screenwriters would realize that when writing certain kinds of thrillers about the CIA, the audience is always going to assume there’s one or more moles at the top of the organization, and that revelation of said mole is rarely dramatic.

But we are not living in that world. We are living in a world where a film like Safe House can take hand-me-down visual mannerisms and castoff story ideas and peddle them like politically relevant drama. The odds-and-ends story has Washington playing Tobin Frost (an admittedly grandiloquent name that promises better things), one of those CIA super-assets who went missing years ago and is thought to have gone rogue. Langley is surprised, then, to discover that Frost—after a smash-’em-up shootout in the streets of Johannesburg—has just walked into the American consulate. He is then spirited away to the safe house of the title, a claustrophobic high-tech facility in a high-rise where frustrated agent Matt Weston (Reynolds) has spent months waiting for a “reservation.” The extraction team has barely started to waterboard Frost when guests come calling with automatic rifles and stun grenades. A rattled Weston hits the streets with a handcuffed Frost, who immediately starts to toy with his captor and rescuer.

This is a pseudo-Training Day meet-cute, with Reynolds in the Ethan Hawke role. Washington, for his part, plays the only kind of role he seems to know how to these days: the wizened and powerful über-being, who strides tall through a dark and depraved world. But as quickly tiresome as the gamesmanship between the two men on the run is, it’s infinitely preferable to the strictly hack-level drama going on back at Langley. There, a trio of Weston’s superiors (played by Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson with as much professionalism as could be expected) stare at computer screens, grouse about what a danger Frost is, and play musical chairs with being that particular scene’s red herring. In between, director Daniel Espinosa plays with oversaturated colors, gritted film stock, and sweaty-browed dramatic intensity like he had watched Man on Fire a few too many times.

Although Guggenheim’s script plays around with relevance, with its backdrop of rendition and black sites, it chucks all that overboard quickly enough whenever there is need for another adrenaline jolt. This is the kind of film, after all, where quiet conversations are usually halted by a sniper’s bullet killing whatever minor character was foolish enough to assist one of the stars. (It’s also the kind of film that can show a cityscape with the Eiffel Tower prominently in view and yet still feel the need to put a title onscreen reading “Paris, France,” but that’s another story.) The idea of relevance is apparently sufficient.