Film Review: Safe House

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Stars: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds

This is an explosive action/thriller that keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

Denzel Washington rarely puts a foot wrong with his film choices and here, also as Exec Producer, he turns in another superb performance.

He’s Tobin Frost: a famously rogue ex-CIA agent who now sells secrets to the highest bidder and spends the rest of his time evading capture.  He’s renowned for his record in the CIA as master interrogator with his uncanny ability to get inside people’s heads.  He’s been there, done it and got the cynicism to prove it.  This time Frost has the mother load: a file so full of secrets that could blow almost every secret service corruption and double-crossing across the globe wide open.  It’s valuable enough to sell for a high price and it’s valuable enough to be killed for to prevent it getting out.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a guy at the other end of the espionage career spectrum: younger, eager and innocent. He’s on duty at the eponymous safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.  He spends his evening with his girlfriend and his long lonely days in the safe house dreaming of his chance to get a “proper” post elsewhere.

Following Frost’s surrender to the US consulate in Cape Town in an effort to evade being killed, he’s take to Weston’s safe house and he soon finds himself neck deep in CIA action.  Apparently the guys that want that file out of circulation don’t give up so easily and there’s no doubt that there is a mole in the CIA to contend with too.

It all makes for a great chase movie.  There are times when some astonishing leaps of logic and detection are made, but in an action film such as this you have to let it slide.  It’s pretty much a rollercoaster of a movie with terse interactions between the main protagonists punctuated with adrenalin fuelled actions sequences.  It almost makes for a buddy movie too, but with a little more than the usual “these 2 guys hate each other, but have to work together” theme.  They have no reason to hate each other; they’re doing their chosen respective jobs.  Instead, cleverly, the scriptwriter David Guggenheim (with his first major movie script) uses the fact that Washington’s character too started out as a safe house operative and clearly sees much of himself in Reynolds idealistic young man.  Washington is such a good actor: at times he subtly eyes Reynolds with the look of a man looking at himself at a younger age and contemplating the choices he made to get him here…all in a look, a nuance weighted enough to make an impact without turning into scenery chewing overacting.

Reynolds too shows his chops as a leading man and for that too we must give credit to the scriptwriter and the director: the script calls for his character to react and largely be out of his depth in a way that makes the audience wonder just what he might decide to do next, whereas a hardened action man movie would clearly map out where the film is going.  The director, Daniel Espanosa, also does not make much of Reynolds’ movie star looks.  No lingering shots or needless shirtless scenes, instead Reynolds is bloody, dirty and sweaty for much of the film and in a state of near collapse and panic.

The action, by and large, is shot to give a sense of realism and I believe these stunts really did take place, as opposed to green screen or CGI, and Reynolds appears to be involved almost throughout, especially in some internal car shots that reminded me a little of McQueen in Bullitt.  There are also some fantastic moments where the action suddenly and very loudly kicks off which not only grabs your attention but echoes the feelings of the two men in that they don’t seem to be able to rest for a second.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between the two, but the file plot and the CIA mole, although a little clumsily handled, are conduits that drive the men together and keep them in each other’s company.  Washington and Reynolds bounce of each other in their scenes, of which I would have loved to have seen more, as both characters get under the skin of the other whether intentionally or not: clearly Washington as Frost wants to get inside Reynolds’ Weston’s head in order to manipulate him and his own escape, but he doesn’t count on Weston getting under his own skin by being so reminiscent of him in his younger days.  In terms of getting the most emotional connection from short scenes, this is an acting master class that could be seen as a metaphor for their own Hollywood career trajectories: Washington has done it all and Reynolds is eager to prove he has what it takes to be more than a Hollywood hunk.  From this, and other interesting career choices such as Buried, Reynolds clearly does have what it takes to be closer to Washington in terms of acting esteem than the Matthew McConaughey end of the spectrum.

In the wrong hands it could have turned into just another 16 Blocks (not a bad movie, but hardly one that grips you) and instead this gives you a great 1 hr 55 minutess of intense thrills and spills.

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