“Safe House” stars Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, who are both at odd places in their careers. Washington is in the middle of a Liam Neeson-style career reinvention, lending the charm and gravitas that have worked so well in dramatic films to intensify stylized action films like “Man on Fire” and “The Book of Eli.” Meanwhile, the obviously talented Reynolds seems to be making a disastrous string of career choices, appearing in two absolute disasters last summer, “The Change-Up” and “The Green Lantern.” Teaming the two actors up for “Safe House” ultimately proves to be a smart move for both, even if the film around them doesn’t quite measure up.
Reynolds stars as rookie CIA agent Matt Weston, the guardian of a safe house in Cape Town who receives an unexpected visitor — notorious rogue agent Tobin Frost (Washington). After a vigorous waterboarding session at the hands of torturer Robert Patrick, the safe house is compromised and Weston and Frost are on the run.
The plot for “Safe House” isn’t especially dense, and that gives director Daniel Espinosa plenty of excuses to layer on the style. This is Espinosa’s U.S. debut, and he instills the Cape Town setting with a grimy, dangerous atmosphere. The action scenes are nicely staged throughout, especially a chase through the slums and an extended, brutal hand-to-hand battle between Weston and a colleague.
Unfortunately, Espinosa’s talent for style doesn’t extend to the narrative. “Safe House” is predictable to a fault, and the supposedly secret identity of its villain is made clear from the very beginning thanks to obvious foreshadowing. While the film’s narrative is mostly built around Reynolds and Washington kicking ass all over South Africa, its denouement tries to say something profound about government corruption and doing the right thing, but ends up sputtering out some nonsense about honor and accountability that’s been covered many times before in much better films.
Thankfully, Washington and Reynolds are very well cast. Washington is at a point in his career where he’s likeable and watchable in almost every film he’s in, and “Safe House” is no different. Though Reynolds is ostensibly the star, Washington is the center of the film, and it’s interesting to see the way that years of violence have hardened his Tobin Frost to the point where he makes killing seem almost casual, cutting down enemies with a menacing familiarity. Reynolds has done good work in other films (2010’s “Buried,” for instance) and he’s serviceable here but never really shines outside of his more quiet scenes with Washington. It doesn’t help that his character arc is in service of a narrative with the subtlety of a neon billboard, yet Reynolds still manages to emerge from “Safe House” unscathed.
“Safe House” is by no means a terrible film. It’s got intensity and style to spare and a good sense of forward momentum, not to mention a strong pairing in its two leads and some memorable action sequences. While that alone (along with the slim cinematic pickings of this week’s new releases) is enough to earn “Safe House” a recommendation, audiences sensitive to clunky exposition, over-predictability and what proves to be a weak, silly ending may want to steer clear.