Safe House returns Denzel Washington to his badass ways that earned him an Academy Award for Training Day. Washington is Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who has been on the run for the last decade selling the most sensitive U.S. secrets to its enemies. Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, an agency member whose position involves him sitting in an empty Cape Town, South Africa Safe House on the off chance that he will one day be needed. Their worlds collide in the thriller directed by Daniel Espinosa, who is making his Hollywood debut (don't miss our exclusive interview with Espinosa).
When Frost walks into the U.S. Embassy seeking refuge in the South African capital, it sets off alarms across the globe. That is also where the audience gets swept away to CIA headquarters as we meet Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Brendan Gleeson’s agents who are trying to make sense of it all. First things first, they must move Frost to a Safe House. Denzel, meet Ryan.
As seen in the Safe House trailer, Reynolds’ “office” gets ambushed and subsequently Espinosa crafts a car chase scene that astounds. You will hold your breath until it concludes and Reynolds and Washington escape danger... for now.
Washington is explosive as Frost. There are layers to his characterization that are such strokes of brilliance. Only the Oscar winner could have his audience pulling for him to succeed when his onscreen persona is guilty of such horrendous crimes. It is as if the audience is having a play date with a fellow who is the most mesmerizing of presences. What we adore so much about a performance such as Washington’s in Safe House is how he is never pandering to the camera. He plays bad as simply a faulty human being, who has some sort of redemption along the ride that only further enhances our adoration for what we are watching.
Reynolds has found his command in the thriller. He is concurrently hapless, harried and heroic. Even though his job is pedantic, the actor plays Weston as a man whose ability to transform into a fierce opponent for Frost is believable. That is because it is clearly established early in the film by Reynolds’ coy demeanor and backstory. In the action-thriller milieu, often the pursuer of the baddie -- when the evildoer is the star of the film -- is not sufficiently drawn to warrant the full audience embrace. It is not quite there in the script by David Guggenheim, but Reynolds does amazing work with what he is given.
Espinosa directs with a crispness that befits his story. His use of the landscape of South Africa is inspired. The deeply divided country, both politically and economically, lends itself as an almost third lead behind Washington and Reynolds.
The use of the rest of the cast is unfortunate. With Shepard, Gleeson and Farmiga all as the requisite agency puppets, they feel slightly underused. The scenes in the CIA headquarters ignite a spark, but seem tame compared to the explosions occurring on the screen in Johannesburg with Reynolds and Washington. Farmiga and Gleeson do get out of the box, but too late in the film for the resonance sought from their stories’ twists.
Overall, Safe House is a worthy thriller, in some ways the most suspenseful we’ve seen since Bourne in terms of its ability to transport a viewer to a place where the lives onscreen are the embodiment of what audiences would expect from the characters telling the story with their emotions and actions.