Safe House is a mediocre movie that contains worthwhile commentary on the state of US intelligence operations abroad, and the nature of what it means to be a spy. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t quite up to the task to do that commentary justice. Shot like The Bourne franchise with the color palette of mid-2000s Tony Scott, the film is visually abrasive. This makes for a very harsh, and very shaky image, with an amazing amount of film grain and visual noise, and characters who are almost always in shadow.
Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a CIA agent with what he considers a garbage detail running the agency’s safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. That name sounds familiar, but it may have been borrowed from the original screenplay for this movie, which was passed around Hollywood long enough to end up on The Black List. Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent that has been operating as a lone wolf for a decade, selling secrets to whoever is buying. Reynolds is itching for a more prestigious posting, and after Washington turns himself in to escape being killed by a hit squad, he’s taken to Reynolds’ safe house. Of course, things aren’t simple in the cloak and dagger game, and the situation rapidly deteriorates putting Reynolds far out of his comfort zone as he tries to keep Washington in his custody, and keep both of them alive.
Robert Patrick, Brendan Gleeson, and Vera Farmiga all show up as CIA agents in secondary roles, but the movie doesn’t give them much to do beyond grimace, bark orders, and do the same while talking into cell phones. They serve little purpose but to give exposition and help transition from action scene to action scene. They do what they can to make these small roles more interesting, but the writing just isn’t there to support their talents. Gleeson in particular feels very squandered, as his character’s relationship with Reynold’s is left almost completely unexplored. He’s introduced as a senior CIA agent who acts as a mentor to Reynolds, but the movie doesn’t go into more detail than that. Exploring what it means to trust someone implicitly in an organization so rife with deception and duplicity would have served the themes of the movie very well, but the filmmakers seem more interested in focusing on the action elements than the characters.
That shallow approach undermines much of the film, but the element that it hurts the most is Washington’s character. While he’s introduced as a master manipulator, a rouge figure whose gift of gab is more dangerous than any weapon, he only gets a few chances to demonstrate those skills. Undermining his character further is that the audience knows too much about the situation from all the exposition back at Langley, so that when he begins to turn Reynolds to his side, there’s no ambiguity to it. For there to be tension in Reynolds being turned, there has to be doubt that he’s making the wrong choice. In pursuit of clarity, the movie manages to remove the paranoia from what should be a paranoid thriller.
There’s a sequence about halfway into the film where the stars, the location shooting, the plot, and the cinematography all come together to shine, showing what could have been. Awake for over 24 hours, Reynolds is out of the titular safe house on the run from a death squad in pursuit of Washington. In this state, he brings Washington with him to a football stadium so that he can retrieve a bag of supplies that the CIA have left for him. In the chaos that is endemic to sports events, Washington is able to escape from his custody, leaving him in a state of desperation. In an instant, he’s lost all control over the situation, and there’s little he can do to talk his way out; it’s not as if he can just say he’s a CIA agent. Pushed into a corner, he finds that he has more in common with Washington’s character, and that thought terrifies him more than any of the gun battles or car chases in the film.
Had the filmmakers made better use of the talent, Safe House could be a new classic, but that’s sadly not the case.