As enemy of the state Tobin Frost, Denzel Washington channels much of the same charismatic energy that won him an Oscar for Training Day, conjuring up an anti-hero (or is that anti-villain?) worthy of his screen time.
Daniel Espinosa’s frenetic thriller Safe House pits this performance against Ryan Reynolds’ Matt Weston, whose job it is to guard a ‘safe house’ – a location the CIA keeps secret and empty, ready for situations in which it may be needed. Matt is young and eager to succeed in the international intelligence business, but he wants to be a field case worker, not a babysitter to a house full of empty rooms. His girlfriend, naturally, doesn’t know what he really does for a living.
When his safe house is finally called into use, Matt is brought face-to-face with Frost who, we are told, has been selling international secrets for years. People fear and respect him. Washington instils him with just the right amount of ambiguity required by a script which is fairly break-neck at times. Espinosa’s handheld style of shooting quickly establishes his lead characters by cross-cutting two storylines, and isn’t afraid to launch into action as soon as possible, making the film’s opening act pretty strong. We get a clear sense of what’s going on despite the on-screen chaos.
From there, Safe House begins to resemble a Bourne film, though this is intended mostly as a compliment. The supporting cast expands to include reliable actors such as Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, whose main role for the first couple of acts is to walk around a CIA control room looking variously stressed, suspicious or incredulous. These two bring likability and weight to characters that have to deal with most of the film’s exposition, as random CIA operatives chime in with back story and context.
This leaves Reynolds and Washington alone to fizz off of each other, and they actually make for very pleasing company. There is plenty of head-cracking action, particularly for Reynolds, and he comes out of this really well. There is also a lot of Bourne-style fast cutting and kinetic editing, but Espinosa keeps this mostly on the right side of watchable, and there are some well choreographed fight scenes as well as some meaty car crashes.
The whole thing is far more watchable and likable than it has any right to be. It’s derivative of many thrillers we’ve seen in recent years, but the strength of its cast and the technical quality of the action do a lot to make us forget those similarities. Frustratingly, it’s when the film enters its third act that the over-familiarity becomes more of an issue, as twists are revealed and motivations are explained. Those motivations aren’t given enough attention and are left too late, while the twists, though still effective, are predictable. Similarly, the true importance of the film’s central MacGuffin (which, to give the screenwriters credit, never actually feels like the film’s driving force) is skimmed over somewhat.
The machinations of the plot don’t give a huge amount of time for sentiment, but there is a nice, if clichéd, scene between Matt and his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), and Washington and Reynolds do build up a convincing, if tried and tested, connection. There is also an unexpectedly poignant scene between Frost and one of his former criminal allies.
We’ve seen most of this before, and in many ways it’s very similar to the Bourne films, but frankly it still works as a standalone piece. With good central performances, hard-hitting action and a controlled sense of style, Safe House is much better than you may be expecting.