Safe House just goes to show you that Hollywood can find a way to take even one of the most boring jobs of any CIA agent would ever have and turn it into an action thriller with a horde of nameless bad guys who never seem to run out of ammunition.
The first thing you need to understand about Safe House is that very little of the film’s close to two-hour running time actually takes place in a safe house. Ryan Reynolds stars as Agent Matt Weston who has spent the last 12 months keeping an empty safe house in South Africa ready in case the CIA needs to safeguard, interrogate, or house someone in the area at a moment’s notice.
Over the past year the only action Weston has seen is between the sheets with his French girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) who has no idea what he really does for a living. Abandoned far too soon, one of the film’s interesting subplots, far more than the infighting and paranoia between various CIA muckety-mucks (Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson), involves Matt’s feelings and responsibilities to the woman he loves once his world goes completely to hell.
Weston’s life is turned upside down when a group of agents show up with rogue ex-CIA agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) who walked into the US Embassy and turned himself in after spending 10 years selling government secrets to the highest bidder. Things get even more interesting when an armed guerilla force tracking Frost shows up in at the safe house and starts killing everyone in sight.
On the run, Weston has to deal with a agent with a lifetime of experience at covert intelligence and lying who has no intention of being locked away for his crimes. Although the pair can’t trust each other, to stay alive they find themselves paired up and only one-step ahead of a near endless supply of B-movie bad guys who want them dead.
When the film stays with Weston’s story, a young agent with dreams of a better assignment in far over his head, it works well-enough. It’s when the script by David Guggenheim tries to spice things up with expected plot twists and super-secret files any government would kill for, that it looses its way.
It doesn’t help that many of the film’s action sequences are almost all shot in shaky cam and jumbled together in an attempt to make them feel more visceral and impactful than they are. It’s only when the camera is pulled back and actually shows you whats happening, as in the elaborate chase sequence that takes place through a shanty town – by far the movie’s best sequence, that the action and story work to compliment each other.
The film has a gritty look and feel I’m not sure it actually deserves, or in some cases even helps tell the story. There’s certainly a high body count, although the film lacks an innovative or crazy deaths fans of this type of movie might expect. But, hey, it does have a waterboarding scene. If you listen carefully throughout the film there are several times you can almost director Daniel Espinosa shouting “Make it grittier!”
Even with these issues I’m giving Safe House a mild recommendation, although you certainly aren’t going to miss anything by waiting to view it on DVD or cable. When it allows its stars time to breathe, and focuses on tension rather than shaky action set pieces and (far too foreseeable) plot twists, it entertains. It’s not a great film, at times I’m not sure it’s even all that good of one, but for a February action thriller with two well-known stars it will deliver about what you’d expect.