Even the combined charisma of Denzel Washington (The Taking of Pelham 123) and Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) can’t make Safe House seem like anything other than the derivative and unengaging nonsense that it is. After being captured in Cape Town, traitorous CIA agent Tobin Frost (Washington) is transported to a local safe house operated by low-level agent Matt Weston (Reynolds), a man frustrated with the lack of career opportunities his present assignment is bringing him. Naturally, opportunity soon comes knocking, in the form of a team of highly armed mercenaries, who quickly prove that Matt’s house isn’t as safe as the title suggests. Forced to flee the scene with Frost in tow, Matt is suddenly suspected by the agency that he serves, and is forced to question where to turn and who to trust as a nefarious net begins to close in around him.
David Guggenheim’s script, his first, is unimaginative and unflinchingly dour, containing none of the fun – or relative conciseness – of another recent Denzel vehicle, Unstoppable. As Weston and Frost chase each other all over South Africa, plot developments surrounding an uncompelling maguffin rapidly go from simplistic to nonsensical, before eventually culminating in a revelation that anyone with even half a brain will have predicted five minutes into the film. A coda that attempts to instil some real world relevance ends up playing like Wikileaks for kindergarteners.
What’s worse is that none of the characters are in the least bit interesting, in spite of the generally high calibre of actors wearing their shoes. Ryan Reynolds tries his best, but the romance at the heart of his emotional arc is wet and uninteresting, plus his decision making is just incredibly poor. Denzel, meanwhile, does his usual thing, and is good at it, but Frost is completely unsympathetic, despite the scripts hurried third-act attempts to somehow redeem him. As bureaucrats working for a CIA that is both critically understaffed and terrifyingly corrupt, decent actors like Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), Veera Farmiga (Source Code) and Sam Shepard (Fair Game) are given little chance to impress, and don’t.
From a directorial standpoint, Safe House is ugly and frequently inept. Daniel Espinosa, in his first outing outside his native Sweden, opts for a grainy, washed-out colour palette that does nothing to distinguish his film from dozens of sub-par, post-Bourne espionage thrillers. In the action sequences the camera shakes with near schizophrenic abandon, and atrocious editing creates frequent problems in continuity. The fact is, in a movie like this, a substandard story can be forgiven if the action is half-way decent. In Safe House, the action is the worst part of the film.