I’m of the opinion that out of all the movie stars and would-be movie stars in Hollywood, Denzel Washington is one of, if not THE, safest bet. I say this because I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who dislikes the man. In a culture that is built upon strong opinions and holding to said opinions fiercely (this is the backbone of the industry in many ways), it is a remarkable feat to put together a 20+ year career like Denzel has without drawing the ire of someone or some group. Age, race, and gender seem to matter not when it comes to Denzel, whose films almost always find a way to exceed expectations whether they are magnificent (Training Day, American Gangster) or wholly lackluster (John Q, Unstoppable). There is an overriding sense among a high percentage of moviegoers that if Denzel is in, so are they. Safe House, a solid if uninspired action thriller, has proven this theory to be true.
Instead of the undercover investigations and shoot outs he expected when he joined the CIA, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) has been relegated to manning a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He is bored and he wants some action, a desire that is all too well fulfilled at the outset of the film when former CIA agent-turned-traitor Tobin Frost (Washington) is brought to his house for interrogation. Soon after his arrival, a militant force arrives to take possession of Frost, killing the highly-trained team that brought Frost into the house. With no other option, Weston grabs Frost and makes a bolt for it, barely escaping the unknown villains who killed his comrades. With no other teams in the area, Weston’s superior, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), tasks him with keeping Frost alive and in custody until he can be collected, a proposition which turns out to be much more difficult and complex than Weston would have ever imagined. With the assailants hot on their trail and Frost crawling deeper and deeper in Weston’s head, the young agent must think fast and learn on the run before he becomes another casualty of a dirty battle that Frost has sucked him into.
There are a few departures from the main storyline at work within Safe House but these distractions are only there to lengthen the film and add some uninteresting depth. This film lives and dies on the performances of Reynolds and Washington, both of whom come through beautifully. It’s been a rough year for Reynolds whose star status has been thrown into serious question with the failures of Green Lantern and The Change-Up. This role, however, is a better fit for him, allowing him to share the load with an established genre veteran instead of being relied upon to carry a major film on his own. I was pleasantly surprised at his ability to give Weston more depth than what you usually get with this sort of film and I thought he hit the right balance between being a half-terrified, inexperienced field agent and being that hardened, “see this thing through to the bitter end” character that Safe House had to have. Washington, meanwhile, is a tour de force, exuding both charisma and menace in just the right amounts. Always a commanding presence on the screen no matter what his role, Washington is at his best when delivering his lines in that quiet, calm, measured manner which he has become famous for and this is a role that calls upon that ability several times. I can’t say that this is one of Washington’s best portrayals and it’s certainly a safer choice than I’d like to see an actor of his caliber make, but it is nonetheless a reminder of exactly why just about everybody digs what this guy has been selling for two decades.
Every other element of Safe House plays second fiddle to the work done by the two leads. The action is intense and somewhat gritty; when a shot is fired, you feel it as much as hear it, a characteristic I quite like in a serious action film. The plot itself is rife with generalities and clichés, making the film about as paint-by-numbers as they come. Personally, though, I didn’t get caught up in these half-hearted missteps too often. Better choices could certainly be made; the major “twist” could be seen from a mile away and the conclusion was unsatisfactory for me. But given director Daniel Espinosa’s relative inexperience behind the camera and the sheer power of Washington’s star appeal, these are issues I found easy to overlook as the film progressed. It’s nothing new and it’s not a film I want to watch a dozen times over but for what it is, Safe House provides an entertaining and appealing experience.