Thriller Slumming: ‘Safe House’

Denzel Washington is a highly respected actor who’s given remarkable performances in films like Malcolm X, Glory, Philadelphia, and Training Day. Looking at his recent career, however, there are a significant number of roles in forgettable movies. Examples include Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and Déjà Vu, which were all directed by Tony Scott. While this collaboration has been commercially successful, it’s also played a role in limiting Washington’s career.

Joining that list of disappointments is Safe House, which gives him the chance to play the bad guy (in a certain sense). This picture isn’t directed by Tony Scott, but it retains a similar feeling of mediocrity that prevails through those films. Washington does solid work and lifts the overall quality, but it still raises questions about why he keeps taking this type of role.

This film’s central character is actually Ryan Reynolds’ Matt Weston, a low-ranking CIA “housekeeper” stationed in South Africa. He lives in Cape Town with his French girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnzeder) and longs for a chance at field work. This wish comes true when the notorious traitor, Tobin Frost (Washington), turns himself in to the authorities. Weston is in way over his head, but he ends up as Frost’s keeper when vicious hoodlums arrive to kill him.

This begins a cat-and-mouse game between the hardened former agent and the idealistic novice. An interesting battle of wills is hidden somewhere in this story, but it never reaches that level. Looking especially grizzled and mean, Denzel rightfully explains how the agency functions and destroys its foot soldiers. The problem is that we’ve seen this type of material before, so it feels more like a tired retread than an intelligent thriller.

While Weston tries to keep tabs on Frost, a trio of supervisors attempts to get a handle on the situation. Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) leads the office, while his ambitious underlings Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) work to prove their value. Although all three actors are very talented, their conversations are generic and feel way too reminiscent of the Bourne films. It’s too bad that such a competent group is here to become exposition machines. Like Washington, they bring weight to material that doesn’t really deserve it and keep the story engaging. By the time we reach the conclusion, however, it’s clear that they’re covering for a pretty empty film.

There are a few effective set pieces, particularly one at a soccer stadium where Frost deftly evades Weston. It’s a solid production, yet it never offers more than short bursts of mild entertainment.

Director Daniel Espinosa and Writer David Guggenheim are striving mightily to deliver a classic action movie, but everything’s so by the numbers. There’s a lengthy chase scene after Weston and Frost flee the safe house that includes some high-flying stunts. Once again, the downside is that it feels too familiar to other films and doesn’t stake its own claim to this territory. When Weston steers their car into oncoming traffic, it should be a thrilling moment, but instead it just reminds us of better movies. This is also one of those stories where characters shoot at will and speed their cars through crowds with little regard for other consequences.

There’s a thin plot about a key file that Frost’s acquiring to spotlight corruption in the CIA. This MacGuffin is just an excuse to bring the duo together and push the bad guys and authorities on their trail.

This Blu-ray/DVD combo release includes a significant group of extras that take us behind the scenes. The actors and crew seem to describing a different movie with a lot more complexity. Despite the up-close look at the shooting, we’re still stuck with brief statements that typically fall into the promotional category. Along with a standard 11-minute documentary, we have features covering hand-to-hand combat, the safe-house attack, the rooftop chase, and the action in general. The footage is well-done and shows how they put it together, though each segment is pretty brief.

The most interesting feature looks at shooting in Cape Town and interacting with the local populace. The extras’ total running time is about 50 minutes, and it’s a solid collection. The problem is that nothing really delves beyond the standard material.

Safe House provides competent entertainment with a solid cast and seems like the type of film that should be released in February. Given the talent involved, it’s frustrating to watch them slum in such a pedestrian thriller. Washington does his best to sell Frost as a more realistic bad guy, but even he can only do so much with the limited material. The plot twists are also easily telegraphed and don’t provide the surprise that the filmmakers intended. We aren’t involved enough with the characters to truly care about the ultimate resolution. This job threatens Weston’s relationship with his girlfriend, but it means nothing to us because they haven’t earned the stakes. It’s just going through the motions and can’t transcend the generic nature of the entire production.

RATING 5 / 10