Hollywood’s latest CIA thriller, Safe House, starring Denzel Washington as a traitor captured after 9 years and Ryan Reynolds as the agent who must look after him over a 24-hour period in Capetown, South Africa, is almost exactly what one would expect. That is both a good and bad thing, because while it is certainly entertaining, delivering all of the excitement and fun one would hope for in an action film starring Denzel Washington, it also rarely manages to rise above its familiar territory or deliver anything unique. Never matching the manic intensity of Man on Fire, the heartfelt emotion of John Q. or the exhilaratingly twisted humor of Training Day, Safe House instead feels like a greatest hits approach of all three films, offering up nothing new in the Denzel Washington movie spectrum.
Many of the problems that the film has emerge at the screenplay level. In many ways it seems as if the screenwriter has misjudged his audience, trying to play up a rote mystery about a mole in the CIA in the first ten minutes or so of the film that is then promptly abandoned until about ten minutes before the film’s resolution. This decision creates neither an interesting villain nor an exciting reveal, but instead a feeling of obligation and tiredness on the writer’s behalf.
More problematic still is the film’s protagonist Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who like many characters of his ilk is far less interesting than his opposition. Indeed, the only time that the character seems to actually serve a legitimate purpose is in some of his final moments, where he and Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) are compared to each other, each showing the flaws and positives in the other. Although Reynolds does his best with the role, as written it is devoid of any real life or character, seeming more like a foil for Washington than anything of self-worth. Weston is an obvious, idealistic patriot with little to no ambiguity of character, nothing to make you care further about him than you would going in, and finally is a character who shows no progression throughout the film’s entire running time.
While Frost, the traitorous agent is slightly more interesting as a character than Weston, when compared to some of Washington’s other characters, he is found slightly above average at best. Neither a true hero nor an iconic villain, Frost is instead a character that is just cool and sympathetic enough for the audience to like him in the moment, with motivations just simple enough to make that same audience forget about him the second they leave the theater. Denzel Washington, like many actors of his age, appears to have settled into something of a rut. It’s not that he’s giving bad performances, but rather is giving performances that he could give in his sleep. Although there are moments of genuine sincerity that allow Washington to flex his all-too-often-unused dramatic muscles, far too often this is just Washington relying on some of his tried and true tricks. It’ll be a great day when Washington decides to go deeper like he used to, but this, like many of his most recent performances is all surface. And, while there is perhaps no one better in Hollywood at the moment at portraying this kind of character, it is beyond frustrating that an actor of this ability has settled for comfort instead of challenge.
Safe House is not without its charms. The action in it, for instance, is better and more comprehensible than that of the Bourne franchise, with some fantastic chase scenes and scenarios not often portrayed in films of this type. Reynolds and Washington also have genuine chemistry together and each has moments of brilliance on their own. It’s just that with a cast like this (Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga are utterly wasted in their thankless roles) and a character with all the potential that Frost had, something this toothless and generic should never have been the result.
Safe House is fun and there are worse ways that you could spend a Saturday night. It can, however, be missed or skipped until DVD, which is something you used to never be able to say about a Denzel Washington film. One can only hope that his next great role is coming and that Ryan Reynolds continues to show the dramatic potency that his role in Buried illustrated. Unfortunately, this fun, but ultimately shallow and forgettable vehicle is not that film.