(by Dustin Putman
Denzel Washington (2010's "Unstoppable") has never been known as the kind of actor who phones it in—he fully commits to his respective roles, making them his own—but his enthusiasm for his craft ends full stop with "Safe House." A Tony Scott wannabe with not even half of that filmmaker's pulsing, off-kilter style, Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (making his sluggish American debut) has spearheaded a glum, graphic, joyless thriller that strips all recognizable signs of charm and life from his actors while barrelling ever closer to a crimson-showered ending that concludes mostly because almost the entire cast has been shot to death. Meanwhile, last-minute politicizing doesn't so closely draw parallels with the real world as it tritely boils down to the old cinematic trope that the vast majority of cops and government officials are dirty. Article continues below
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a young CIA agent biding his time with girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder) in the picturesque South African city of Cape Town as he waits for his next field assignment. One such mission comes to him in the form of keeping an eye on Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a former agent gone rogue who is being kept at a safe house as he awaits questioning from authorities. Tobin, wanted for espionage on four continents, has no sooner arrived that the place is attacked by mercenaries. Matt and Tobin narrowly escape, going on the run together as they try to elude the men after them while finding a new place of protection. Can Matt trust Tobin at all, though? Can he trust anyone?
"Safe House" includes a car chase, a cat-and-mouse game at a nighttime soccer stadium, and several shoot-outs. Sadly, reading about it is more diverting than experiencing it—a tell-tale sign that the makers haven't done their jobs in making a movie that many viewers actively will want to keep watching. The plot that first-time screenwriter David Guggenheim has orchestrated is strictly generic, the film's visuals courtesy of cinematographer Oliver Wood (2010's "The Other Guys") are pure uninspired grit, the characters are rail-thin and uninteresting, and the pacing—even when it's moving—seems to just be running in place. It doesn't help that it all leads to a climax as vicious, violent and unsettling as any recent extreme R-rated horror item, or that there isn't a person in sight to rally behind. It's ugly and ineffectual even as it affects.
Ryan Reynolds (2011's "The Change-Up"), who has been stretching his wings into more dramatic territory lately—he was fantastic in 2010's minimalist trapped-in-a-coffin suspenser "Buried"—has always, no matter the genre, held a glint in his eye that made him amiably relatable, a puppy dog at heart. All of that is gone in "Safe House," which is either a testament to how well Reynolds has disappeared into the picture or how viciously director Daniel Espinosa has snuffed out the qualities that make him so special as an actor. Either way, Reynolds is given little depth to work with as Matt Weston and his personality has been rendered nonexistent. He does do a marvelous job, however, of enacting his character's physical pain and exhaustion in the third act.
As the elusive Tobin Frost, who of course holds an intel file in his possession that could prove mighty damaging if gotten into the wrong hands, Denzel Washington gives what might be his most laggard performance in memory. Performing as if he's been perpetually hooked up to a Thorazine drip, Washington indecipherably mumbles his way through his dialogue as his tired eyelids grow perilously heavy. He looks like he needs a bed, not a camera thrown in his face. Speaking of thespians who must be bored, poor Vera Farmiga (2011's "Source Code") looks understandably miserable and untested as CIA head Catherine Linklater, spouting off dry exposition about who everybody is in the story as their face and credentials conveniently pop up on the screen behind her. It's a wholly thankless part, save for her exploitative involvement in a late twist that just makes her participation seem all the more offensive.
After slogging through familiar territory for an hour and a half, "Safe House" comes to life in time for its finale. It is not that it is very good, but the fight scenes are involving and brutal enough to rouse the sleepiest of audience members awake. How everything plays out is proof of how empty and desperate the plot has been, but also how potentially inspired director Daniel Espinosa might be in a different genre: say, horror instead of action. He certainly knows his way around broken glass and loaded guns. Mean-spirited though it gets—and quick—at least it isn't just going through the interminable motions. Before this point, that's "Safe House" in a nutshell.