Before getting to what Safe House is, I'll say what it is thankfully not, and that is another of those disappointing Tony Scott/Denzel Washington collaborations. It's more like an espionage version of Training Day, with a much cooler, calmer Denzel. Instead of director Antoine Fuqua, it's a Swedish director with an equally exotic name, Daniel Espinosa, known for Snabba Cash (Easy Money). Instead of the hard-driving streets of L.A., we have the intense avenues of Cape Town, South Africa.
CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low-level CIA "housekeeper" in charge of a safe house where suspects are taken by CIA operatives to be interrogated. Enter Tobin Frost (Washington), the agency's most notorious traitor, who mysteriously turns himself in. When the safe house is attacked, gunmen pursue Weston and Frost. Taking a page from the identity-and-loyalty-in-question Bourne movies and Salt, this flick has two action heroes and more gratuitous violence than you can shake a semi-automatic weapon at.
I thought Espinosa was going to blow his wad early with an exhilarating cat-and-mouse shadowing of Frost. Not the case. This is followed by a copious amount of gunplay and one of the best car chases I've seen. Safe House doesn't skimp on the punching, running, bullet spattering and thundering car smashes. This punch-fest, shoot 'em up truly revels in all its action glory.
Worth mentioning is the spot-on editing, dizzying camera work and super stylized direction. Within a somber tone, Espinosa maintains a visually coherent sense of time and space regardless of how much pummeling there is. Cinematographer Oliver Wood, whose credits include all three Bourne entries and a myriad of other action-related flicks, including Face/off and Sister Act 2 (Okay nobody's perfect), employs a frenetic style that never wanes. His editor, Richard Pearson, whose credits also include The Bourne Supremacy, sews together some of the most cohesive scenes in recent history.
Reynolds deserves recognition for his ability to go seamlessly from smarmy comedic roles to down and dirty everyman roles. He's absolutely believable as a man whose emotions go through the proverbial wringer. Denzel, on the other hand, is so good at playing the smoldering mystery man keeping audiences guessing about his intentions. The grizzled and determined CIA home base agents are a bunch of actors (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard) known for laying on the intense deep seriousness. They all look treacherously unhealthy; I can't tell if it's them or the characters, probably both.
The problems I have with this flick are miniscule, such as: is it possible to write a script that doesn't have a CIA agent going rogue? And how many necks need to be broken by that twisting head move?
On the other hand, there are excellent shit-coming-out-of-nowhere scenes that startle - a car slams into another, or a bullet pierces a skull when we least expect it.
In the end, Safe House outdoes Salt, Fast and Furious and all the Bourne flicks put together. With a kind of "wish come true" WikiLeaks ending, whirlwind action, high body count and performances that stay on the mark, Safe House avoids playing it that way .
Starring Denzel Washington,
Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga,
Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard
Directed by Daniel Espinosa