At this point, the plot arcs for espionage thrillers are pretty unsurprising, and Daniel Espinosa’s “Safe House” is no different. There’s a rogue spy who is chased by his old agency for his incriminating knowledge of said organization’s dirty dealings. A wary colleague teams up with him, and once trust is built, they start working together.
Even though puns could be made about the title “Safe House,” in reference to its cautious decision to stick with a proven formula, we’ll forgo them, since predictability is the only major faux pas that the film commits.
Any other annoying bits are minor in nature, like the unnecessary display of dates and times on screen to frame the events, and the literal reading of characters’ dossiers in an effort to flesh out their past. Chronologically “Safe House” is straightforward enough and a little ambiguity about our protagonists would have been more conducive to the intrigue that drives spy thrillers.
Outside of that nitpicking, “Safe House” is an entertaining action flick filled with exciting chase sequences and brutal hand-to-hand fights. Director Daniel Espinosa shoots hot pursuit with a tight perspective from the passenger side and back seats of the cars involved. As his camera bounces around, it raises the intensity of the moment, because you actually feel like you’re riding with the characters.
Similarly, Espinosa’s brawls take place in enclosed spaces like hallways, where the combatants need to get scrappy in order to win. Since the characters actually sustain injuries during these scrapes, you can’t help getting invested in their safety. Probably the most thrilling sequence in “Safe House” however, mixes a car chase with fighting. The sight of two men beating the crap out of each other, while weaving in and out of traffic, kicks up the thrill several notches.
The movie centers on Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a low-level CIA operative with the boring assignment of watching over a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa that rarely sees visitors. As a result, Weston is surprised as heck when he receives a frantic group of men and their prisoner in the wee hours of the morning. Their captive is legendary spy Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a rogue agent accused of selling secrets to America’s enemies.
Apparently the CIA isn’t the only one after Frost, because an outside group busts into the safe house to retrieve him. Luckily Weston and Frost make a daring escape, but they must lie low, until the CIA cavalry arrives. Given his rank, Weston sees the opportunity to turn in Frost, as a chance to advance his career.
Unfortunately, Weston needs all of his cunning to maintain custody of the slippery Frost, who spent years on the run from the CIA. As if that’s not hard enough, the manipulative Frost tries to get inside Weston’s head with implications that Weston is working for the wrong side like “This is fun, you and me figuring shit out, like the Hardy Boys.”
While the fights and chases are enjoyable, Weston and Frost’s characters give much needed depth to “Safe House.” When we first meet Weston, he exudes a macho exterior, which hides a deep insecurity about his career’s direction. Frost on the other hand is cold blooded, inside and out. As the film wears on, they interestingly swap places with Weston becoming detached, and Frost growing weary with regret over his life choices. In this way it’s almost like the younger Reynolds is taking the reins from Washington in the genre. Ryan Reynolds surprises with his ability to convincingly headline in an action thriller, but Denzel Washington proves yet again that it’s old hat.