Safe House (United States/South Africa, 2012)

February 08, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Safe House Poster

Safe House is an overlong, underwhelming knock-off of The Bourne Identity - another generic spy thriller in which the "bad guy" (a traitor) is the good guy (because he's at war against corruption) and the "good guys" (government agents) are the bad guys (because they are corrupt). There are car chases, double-crosses, and copious amounts of graphic violence, all of which add up to very little. The pacing is uneven, the frenetic action is rarely suspenseful, the dialogue is neither witty nor intelligent, and the anticlimactic endgame drags out to an improbable conclusion. Safe House has B-movie sensibilities with an A-list cast - a formula that sometimes provides reasonable entertainment, except in a situation like this when it's plain most of the well-known players are on hand for purposes of refreshing their bank accounts.

The well-cut trailer makes Safe House seem like a great recipe for two hours of espionage-tinged thrills with a Machiavellian antagonist worthy to stand alongside The Dark Knight's Joker. The reality is it's a combination of undercooked ingredients and recycled plot elements, and the "villain" of the full production is a pale shadow of what he appears to be in the preview. No one seems truly invested in the project - not Denzel Washington, whose performance is bland and monochromatic, nor Ryan Reynolds, who's too earnest to be believable. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's style is reminiscent of that of Tony Scott (at his worst), with a lot of shaky hand-held shots. Cape Town, where most of the action takes place, comes across as a hellhole - South Africa's tourism division will not be using Safe House to promote this as a vacation spot.

The storyline uses the tired scenario of a corrupt CIA mole doing everything within his/her power to avoid discovery. That includes killing the man who has obtained a file containing proof of the misdeeds of every American and British agent on the take. This man, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), is a former elite agent who went rogue a decade ago and has been in hiding since then. He has been branded as a traitor by his former employees, but his name is legendary. When he unexpectedly walks into the U.S. Consulate in South Africa, no one is sure of his motives. He is transferred to a safe house for interrogation. A hit squad pursuing him locates the safe house and slaughters everyone there except Tobin and untried agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who survive the massacre and go on the run. The CIA gives Weston orders about where to go but, since there's a mole in Langley, the bad guys are always one step ahead.

The screenplay, credited to David Guggenheim, offers little that's new, exciting, or surprising. The action sequences are generic, character development is perfunctory, and the supposed plot twists are obvious. Anyone who doesn't know the identity of the mole within the first ten minutes must be new to the spy thriller genre. At nearly two hours, the movie is at least 30 minutes too long, which results in periods of tired exposition and sequences with no real payoff. This is a case of a script that needed at least another round of polishing before being put into production.

Safe House tries to be a little different by not transforming into a buddy film. No warmth is evident between Frost and Weston, who remain adversaries almost to the end. Some sort of relationship, however, might have been preferable. By not feeding off one another, the characters remain inert; there's no urgency or spark in their interaction - they are merely sharing the screen when required by the story. Frost is as much of an enigma at the end as at the beginning, although his aura of invincibility has been punctured. Weston, on the other hand, transforms with little motivation into a crusader.

Washington could do this role in his sleep, which is close to what he accomplishes. For an actor with such range and ability, it's a disappointment to see him bring so little to a part that cries out for a bravura performance. Despite his strong work in Buried, Reynolds has yet to show the ability to carry an action film (The Green Lantern, in fact, offers evidence to the contrary) and Safe House argues that he's too lightweight for darker material. The secondary cast, which includes accomplished character actors Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard, represents a wasted pool of talent. For the most part, they sit around in a situation room in Langley and provide background information on Frost and Weston.

The decision to release Safe House in the middle of February can be seen as a tacit admission by Universal Pictures that expectations are limited. Films like this, if they wow a distributor, will be favorably placed for a summer or holiday slot. Safe House probably looked better on paper than it does on film, which is regrettably true of many movies dotting the multiplex landscape at this time of year. One can only hope that 2012's "legitimate" Bourne sequel offers more than this lackluster Bourne imitation.

Safe House (United States/South Africa, 2012)

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Nora Arnezeder
Screenplay: David Guggenheim
Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Music: Ramin Djawadi
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2012-02-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1