You’d be forgiven for thinking that Denzel Washington’s frequent collaborator Tony Scott directed him in the spy thriller Safe House, since it has the same oversaturated, hyperactive look of Scott/Washington movies like Man on Fire and Unstoppable. The director is actually Daniel Espinosa, a Swede making his English-language debut, and his style is a little less frenetic than Scott’s, without quite as many quick cuts or changes in film stock, and with no annoying predilection for onscreen clutter. Still, Scott’s visual intensity might have done a better job of distracting from the pedestrian story about a rookie CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) who must hold onto a rogue former operative (Washington).
Washington’s Tobin Frost has been off the grid for nine years when he unexpectedly resurfaces in Cape Town, South Africa, where Reynolds’ Matt Weston works as a “housekeeper,” sitting around all day in an empty safe house waiting for a call to tell him that he’s needed. He finally gets that call when Frost walks into the U.S. consulate to avoid the many guys with large guns who are chasing him, and gives himself up to the CIA. Of course, those guys with guns don’t give up, and soon Weston is on the run with Frost, trying to avoid getting killed while also figuring out who the bad guys actually are.
As he proved in Training Day and American Gangster, Washington is excellent at playing charismatic, morally dubious characters, and he has some entertaining moments as Frost makes it his mission to mess with the naïve Weston’s head. But Frost isn’t nearly as fascinating or complex as Washington’s characters in those other movies, and the story he’s stuck in plays things strictly by the numbers. Reynolds is also a much weaker foil than Ethan Hawke or Russell Crowe, making Frost and Weston’s dynamic a little too lopsided.
Espinosa makes the action propulsive enough at first that the flaws are less noticeable (there’s a top-notch car chase in the movie’s first half), but things drag considerably as the plot mechanics start to heave into motion, and Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga, both fine actors, never really click as the dueling bureaucrats keeping tabs on Frost and Weston. By the time the obvious, half-hearted twist rolls around, the excitement has been slowly drained away, and even Washington’s mischievous smile can’t resurrect it.