Review: Safe House

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Safe House seems like as good a name as any for a movie with the apathetic tagline “No One Is Safe,” although it doesn’t quite nail the derivative-jittery-spy-thriller vibe. If only this thing weren’t so earnest, it might have the good self-spoofing grace to say what it really is: The Bourne I Wannabe.

 

In Safe House, Ryan Reynolds stars as a young CIA agent tasked with looking after a fugitive mastermind played by Denzel Washington (above), a task that gets much harder when the safe house holding him comes under fire.

 

Imagine Ryan Reynolds as a dutiful but untested young CIA agent, jockeying a desk in a location so secure that his greatest professional risk is death by boredom. Then the phone rings. “Housekeeping,” he answers, sounding like a meek hotel maid. Soon enough Denzel Washington sits before him, soaking up enhanced interrogation techniques. Fancy meeting him here: formerly a CIA company man himself, now a dangerous fugitive who’s just eluded a city full of determined killers. So determined, actually, that they break right in to the obviously no longer secure location and keep right on gunning for him. Under such peculiar duress, an unlikely partnership forms, and perhaps just the test our young Reynolds needs: a jagged adventure of lethal mental and physical combat, with mentoring!

Now back at home base, we find the obligatory control room full of phones and screens and furtive bureaucrats agitatedly explaining things to each other and to the audience. These people include Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, and Vera Farmiga, and together they manage to arouse some real pity for the hapless Reynolds, here responsible for anchoring a movie that’s crawling with actors who outclass him. It can’t be much consolation that they seem more stranded than he does, but at least he gets to keep busy. With Washington’s character duly described as an “expert manipulator of human assets,” it becomes clear that the same can not be said for this film’s director.

Daniel Espinosa is his name, and he seems content manipulating an atmosphere of volatility. Plot threads about confused loyalties and eruptions of corruption are handled roughly, so as to become frayed. Deadly flying objects—bullets mostly, but also at least one motor vehicle—tend to make surprise entrances from just out of frame. Sometimes they make surprise entrances from within the frame. Anyway, it’s the surprise, and the deadliness, that matters.

Safe House has a screenwriter credit too, for David Guggenheim, but if he’s the one responsible for fleeting efforts to suggest that Washington’s character also is a wine aficionado, it’s easy to see why Espinosa might rather let action speak louder than words.

The good news is that none of the performances are as condescending as this review. Reynolds huffs and puffs like a  marathoner who won’t let anything keep him from his finish line. Without working very hard, Washington still has a way of doing competent work. The agitated bureaucrats go about their business, including a few unsurprising complications, with efficient dignity. Any sense of fallen artistic ideals is redeemed by a feeling of fiduciary pragmatism—the agreeable thought of kids’ college funds getting padded. Somewhere, someone must be safe.

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