“Forgettable” probably isn’t a word you’d expect to use to describe a film starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard. But unfortunately, that’s one of the most apt when pondering “Safe House.”
Directed by Daniel Espinosa from a script by David Guggenheim (not to be confused with “An Inconvenient Truth” director Davis Guggenheim), this is a frenetically paced jumble of shaky-cam tricks and quick edits, dizzying car chases and deafening shootouts. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for yet another action thriller from Tony Scott, given that it bears his aesthetic markings as well as the presence of Washington, his usual star.
This time, Washington plays the notorious Tobin Frost, a brilliant former CIA operative who’s turned traitor, selling secrets to any nation or enemy cell willing to buy them. After years on the run, he turns himself in at the American embassy in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s then taken to the local agency safe house where Reynolds, as the ambitious Matt Weston, is its bored, rookie minder.
Matt longs to prove himself and see some real action in the field, and he gets it sooner than he expects when the house comes under a vicious, heavily armed attack and he and Tobin must go on the run together. Farmiga, Gleeson and Shepard play the suits back in the United States who are tracking their whereabouts and wondering whether they’re in cahoots.
But everyone here is a potential rogue, because red herrings and double crosses abound; it’s a tactic meant to keep us guessing and (theoretically) distract us from the fact that the movie doesn’t have anything novel to do or say during its overlong running time. U.S. intelligence agents waterboard Tobin soon after bringing him to the house to get him to divulge what he knows (there’s a potentially damaging file at stake). Initially, this seems like the film’s attempt to shine a light on a divisive interrogation technique, but ultimately, “Safe House” reveals itself to be more interested in bombastic, bloody thrills than provocative, analytical thought.
Washington maintains his usual formidable presence but remains very much in his comfort zone. Sure, he’s playing a bad guy but he’s never pushed into functioning as a complete villain, and his banter as the cynical old pro opposite the young, idealistic Reynolds recalls his Oscar-winning work in “Training Day.” He’s smart and charming; he also may be right about some of his more untrustworthy colleagues. When he finally shaves off his shaggy, graying hair and goatee and flashes that dazzling smile of his, he’s once again the safe Denzel we know and love.
Reynolds, meanwhile, looks discombobulated most of the time. It’s a total waste of his charisma — although he does give it his all physically in a demanding, bruising role, which includes appearing shirtless within the first minute or so of the film.
At least “Safe House” recognizes the simplicity of giving the people what they want in that regard.