Release Date: February 10, 2012
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Writer: David Guggenheim
Stars: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds and Vera Farmiga
MPAA Rating: R
Safe House is being advertised as a psychological thriller where Denzel Washington’s Tobin Frost gets in the head of green CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). I really wish that’s what the film actually was, since it inevitably would have been better than the film we ended up with.
Instead, Safe House is a poorly-conceived and poorly-shot action film that hopes to deliver enough gunfire and car chases to distract you from its non-sensical plot. The psychological element mainly consists of Frost telling Weston “I’m already in your head,” but then never once showing any evidence that he actually is by getting any psychological advantage over the inexperienced CIA agent.
Weston is stuck in a dead-end position in the CIA. For the past year, he’s been in charge of an unused agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Weston begs his superiors to reassign him, but they don’t seem to trust him enough to give him actual field work. So Matt goes to work every day, babysitting an empty building. He’s settled in quite comfortably to his uneventful life in South Africa, finding a girlfriend who is clueless about his CIA position and inventing an elaborate cover story that includes details about the personal lives of his fictional coworkers.
Tobin Frost is a former CIA operative who turned against the agency and went into work for himself. He’s one of the most wanted men in America. When things go bad for Frost as he’s attempting to collect some incredibly valuable information in Cape Town, he decides the only way to elude those pursuing him is to walk into the U.S. consulate and surrender himself. That puts him inside Weston’s safe house and supposedly inside Weston’s head.
But it doesn’t take long for the safe house to be hit and the two of them to end up on the lam waiting for the calvary to arrive. Frost still doesn’t use the opportunity to get in Weston’s head. They have a few short conversations, but most of them are interrupted by the next big action scene. And while Frost is portrayed as being an evil genius (the CIA brass uses one of my favorite movie cliches, informing us that Frost “tested off the charts” on all of their exams), he mainly gets out of jams using force instead of intellect.
It probably still could have worked as a fast-paced action film, but the script and the editing keep it from even working on that level.
Safe House is full of plot points that are frustratingly ill-conceived. Like, for example, the fact that the CIA, which has absolutely no faith in Weston’s ability to keep Frost contained, sends the agent to a soccer stadium in the middle of a game to pick up a “drop bag” giving him a rendezvous point. Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea? There are way too many unpredictable elements like the local police, the crowd and Frost himself. And, of course, things go bad quickly.
The end of the film, which attempts to give us a “shocking swerve,” is even worse. The big reveal makes little sense if you stop to think about it for more than a few seconds and the big climactic scene is an orgy of gunfire and explosions, hoping to distract you from just how much the entire plot has fallen apart at that point.
In addition to the underwhelming story, director Daniel Espinosa makes the film practically unwatchable with his stylistic decisions. Most of the film is shot with handheld cameras, which can work in small doses, but becomes frustrating when everything you see is shaky and hard to track. Plus, Espinosa is overly fond of extreme close ups focusing on things like people’s hands or their left nostril.
Action sequences are impossible to follow since they feature the perfect storm of shaky camera work, odd close ups and quick editing. It’s hard to keep track of which character is which and who is doing what with the way Espinosa continually switches the focus. Several times I thought Frost or Weston had been injured by an attacker only to eventually figure out they were the one doing the injuring. The goal of that style of filming is to add tension and to make the action feel more extreme, but if it’s impossible to track what’s happening in the scene, it loses all impact.
Denzel Washington is charming and exciting to watch in the film, though even his charm isn’t enough to save this one. Ryan Reynolds is fine as Weston, though unremarkable. Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson are both good as upper level CIA agents attempting to fix the volatile situation Weston and Frost are in. Robert Patrick is actually billed quite high in the credits of this film, but he only has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, which, like so many things in this film, is disappointing.
Generally, I am a fan of Denzel Washington’s movies and I tend to give his action films more leeway than I do with other actor’s films. But even with low expectations, this film fails on just about every level. If you are a fan of Washington like I am, you are better off simply watching Man on Fire or Fallen on DVD again than wasting your money on this film.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.