It’s always a pleasure to watch Denzel Washington, even when he’s in a movie that fails to live up to his screen presence. If anything, his mediocre films, like Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Book of Eli, only strengthen that argument. He’s so good in all of them that he makes them better than they deserve to be. Still, one can’t help but long for his glory days of starring in bona fide winners, like Man on Fire and Training Day. His latest, entitled Safe House, isn’t a return to form, but it’s a step in the right direction, easily a notch above his last few efforts, but far below the quality of film he deserves to be in.
Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA traitor who has been leaking important government information to a number of various parties for years. He has just been caught and transported to a government safe house in South Africa, which is cared for by an up and coming agent named Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds. However, the safe house is quickly breached by an unknown party and Matt soon finds himself in possession of Tobin and tasked with bringing him in.
Safe House has a pretty simple story, though it tries to cover it with talk of government espionage, encrypted files and the like. It’s little more than an action movie where the characters have to move from Point A to Point B while dodging gunfire and participating in car chases. There aren’t any surprises to be found, including an eventual revelation that someone inside the CIA may be corrupt, but it moves forward at a brisk pace, occasionally stopping for some expositional dialogue, and always manages to entertain.
This lack of story development may be frustrating for some, but in this case, its simplicity is its gain. Many films with government conspiracies and espionage get bogged down in their own confusing narrative, but Safe House doesn’t, instead focusing more on what the characters are doing rather than why they are doing it. With two impressive performances from its leads, including Reynolds who has come a long way since his goofy comedy days, this focus works. Reynolds and Washington manage to keep the audience gripped, even after they’ve lost interest in the overall goal of the film.
Where it suffers is where many action films these days do: its persistent use of shaky cam. When things get hectic in Safe House, so does the camera, which leads to disorientation and the occasional inability to tell what’s going on. Ever since the Bourne movies, this technique has been a go-to for many filmmakers, but it rarely works. Although it may give more of a sense of actually being there, which is a benefit for some movies (most notably “found footage” films like Cloverfield), it prohibits the audience from achieving maximum enjoyment. In Safe House, it’s a hindrance.
With an untested director behind the camera, this ill-advised decision isn’t surprising (though cinematographer Oliver Wood, who also framed the aforementioned Bourne movies, does what he can to make it work). With his insistence on the technique and off-putting lighting filled with dark, dank hues, it’s difficult to say whether Daniel Espinosa has the chops to be a big time filmmaker, but at least he chose the right movie to make his American debut. It’s nothing so special to be out of his talent range, but nothing so dumb that he will be written off. Safe House rests squarely in between. It’s not the smartest movie of the year, nor the most exciting, but given its February release, it’s enough.
Safe House receives 3.5/5