Denzel Keeps 'Safe House' Standing
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"I only kill professionals," Denzel Washington informs Ryan Reynolds at a crucial point in this action thriller. It's a resonant line for a number of reasons, not many of them having much to do with what's going on in the movie itself. "Safe House" is yet another big-budget vehicle for Washington, and, like the venerable "Training Day" (2001) and the more recent "Unstoppable," it has Denzel portraying a grizzled vet of sorts who's gotta teach a younger white newbie How It's Done.
Of course, in "Training Day," Washington's villainous cop, Alonzo Harris, had a pretty twisted idea of how it was done, while in "Unstoppable" his noble railroad engineer was the absolute spirit of self-sacrifice. While his character in this film -- a rogue CIA agent with the entirely fascinating name Tobin Frost -- ostensibly has his heart in the right place, the truth fervor that drove him out of the agency and into an underground existence also drives him to try to remain free By Any Means Necessary.
But when a trip to Capetown to acquire some very valuable and desired-by-many-parties intel goes very badly south, Tobin's only way out is to turn himself in ... with the provision, of course, that once he's out of the way of the people who are trying to kill him, he'll bust his way out again. It's at this point that the agent is ensconced in the title safe house, which is presided over by bored young agent Matt Weston (Reynolds), who's got a hot French girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) he hopes he can relocate to Paris with, if only he can get his stateside boss (Brendan Gleeson) to push through a promotion.
Frost's presence suddenly makes Weston's life a lot more exciting, especially after a waterboarding session is broken up by hawk-nosed hired assassin Vargas (Fares Fares) and his very trigger-happy crew. Weston takes Frost on the run, hoping the bosses back home will love him if he delivers the guy to the next safe house, across the city. The wily, semi-affable Frost messes with Weston, assuring him that he's soon to be screwed. In the meantime, over in Langley, Gleeson and colleagues played by Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard are very officious with each other, and one of the three may have motives for getting rid of both of the agents in South Africa.
The movie's directed by Daniel Espinosa, a Sweden-born fellow of Chilean extraction, with a rawish but not entirely Paul Greengrass-derived kinetic style. A lot of Washington's method and manner suggest a black Bourne, if you will, but the actor brings his own sui generis charm and intensity to the role. David Guggenheim's script is a pretty well-organized compilation of thriller tropes (if you go by the Hollywood history of the Central Intelligence Agency, it would appear that a disaffected agent tries to bring the agency down about once every 20 minutes or so), and the movie's action mayhem gains in novelty value for being set in a spot that hasn't been made overly familiar in Hollywood films. (A chase/shootout scene staged in a shantytown is particularly eyebrow-raising, if not thoroughly pulse-pounding.)
What sells it all, if it sells, is Washington, and when his character dismisses Reynolds' character with the line quoted above, the effect is particularly poignant because Reynolds, in fact, has some trouble keeping up. The actor looks good on paper and, yes, on film: He's good-looking, well-built, coordinated. But his screen persona has not yet shaken the callowness that made him such an appropriate alpha frat boy in those "Van Wilder" movies. He certainly can be seen making an effort here -- giving it the old college try, maybe? But he still doesn't quite match up with Washington. And while that doesn't sink "Safe House," it certainly makes it a little less of a ride than it might have been.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.