Safe House is a familiar-feeling action yarn about conspiracy, corruption and splintered idealism, essentially a grab-bag of elements from various recent spy thrillers. It’s bolstered, though, by a strong cast and a director who has infused the clichéd narrative with immense energy and verve. With that said, though, Safe House is merely a good actioner which had the potential to achieve greatness. It’s a lot of fun while locked in adrenaline-pumping mode, yet the picture grinds to a halt whenever its attention is turned to the standard-order political mumbo jumbo. Indeed, the film evidently believes that it’s more intelligent than it is.
CIA operator Matt Weston (Reynolds) yearns for real action, but is posted to a slow-paced station in South Africa where he’s merely a “housekeeper” for a safe house. When notorious traitor Tobin Frost (Washington) surrenders himself to the American authorities in Cape Town after spending the better part of a decade selling classified information, he is escorted to Weston’s safe house for questioning. Almost immediately, the safe house is stormed by armed mercenaries seeking to kidnap Frost and obtain the intel he’s carrying. Scared and longing to prove himself, Weston exits the safe house with Frost, and turns to his bosses for guidance as he hits the volatile streets looking for a new hiding spot. As the pair work their way around the continent, questions are raised about who to trust, and the naïve young Weston finds his entire life overturned by the frantic ordeal as he works to bring in Frost by any means necessary.
Before diving into the nitty gritty, Safe House sets some time aside to develop Matt’s character, observing his serene everyday life with girlfriend Ana (Arnezeder) before he gets caught up in the narrative’s perilous machinations. While this stuff isn’t brilliant, screenwriter David Guggenheim and director Daniel Espinosa deserve credit for showing an interest in character building, and the attempt feels genuine instead of merely perfunctory. By allowing us a window into Matt’s life, the stakes are automatically upped when the shit hits the fan. Unfortunately, though, the movie soon starts introducing a selection of lazy plot devices including moles and secret files, and the pace is ground to a halt whenever the script concerns itself with such a clichéd routine. This stuff is too easy, and the movie wastes too much time on it. This leads to a third act which begins to fall apart – interest wanes once Frost’s package is revealed, leading to a conclusion that (while admittedly tying into Frost’s psychological mind games) doesn’t entirely gel. It’s almost as if Guggenheim literally ran out of ideas and was struggling for an easy way out. Sure, the ending will probably satisfy the casual action fans, but Safe House should have tussled with bigger ideas. As a result, the picture is merely a fun action yarn rather than an action-thriller for the ages.
Swedish director Espinosa clearly took his directorial cues from Tony Scott, as his cinemagraphic technique and general “look” is highly reminiscent of Scott’s output. In other words, Espinosa and cinematographer Oliver Wood adopted a routine of fast cuts, shaky-cam and close-ups, which at times is pronounced to the point of distraction and queasiness. Consequently, while a lot of action scenes are pulse-pounding and nail-biting, others are hard to comprehend and result in motion sickness. Espinosa also opted for a visible noise structure which coats the image (another Tony Scott trademark), lending the frame an often gritty, documentary-like style and adding tremendous immediacy. Safe House is a visceral action film, unafraid to show stabbings, bullet wounds and neck snaps set to a booming sound mix. Credit must also go to the production team for not going overboard with their R-rating. Instead of excessive blood splatter, Espinosa and his crew went for a more realistic approach; content to have an R-rating as part of the film’s DNA, meaning its tone is exceptionally dark and it’s horrific without being exploitative (innocent women are even killed in cold blood).
The cast contains such big names as Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard, but Safe House is the Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington show. They are the primary players, and it’s this match-up that will entice viewers to investigate the flick. Fortunately, the two are an engaging pair who share solid chemistry. As Denzel also executive produced the picture, he didn’t phone in this performance; he completely convinces as Tobin Frost with a performance suggesting deep reserves of knowledge while also coming off as wise and world-weary. And as Weston, Ryan Reynolds is surprisingly excellent. Ditching the goofy, comedic antics which characterise the star, Reynolds was not afraid to get his hands dirty, and he plays anxiousness extraordinarily well. He gets believably roughed-up, involving himself in various violent conflicts as his handsome features are scarred. Moreover, he does a fine job of making us care about what happens to him. The rest of the cast, on the other hand, are pretty unremarkable. They’re not bad per se as their intensity cannot be faulted, but they’re never given the chance to test their acting chops.
Despite a few pacing issues and despite its unmemorable plot twists, Safe House is an enjoyable little actioner. Its visceral episodes are delightful for the most part, culminating with a terrifically-executed final showdown that almost overcomes its preposterous nature. A more thoughtful creative team could have gone deeper and provided a thoughtful masterpiece with the same premise, but the movie we’ve received is an entertaining enough effort that’s definitely worth investigating for its best action moments.