Out of the ashes of the phenomenally successful Bourne series comes this below-average espionage thriller that focuses on Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a blank-faced rookie CIA agent who becomes entrusted with the safety of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a smooth-talking former spy who has ditched his allegiances and gone rogue.
After Tobin Frost narrowly avoids death at the hands of ruthless mercenaries while receiving some potentially damaging information from a corrupt MI6 agent, he decides that his only option for survival is to turn himself into the American embassy in Johannesburg. As a wanted man he is instantly taken into custody and transported to a safe house within the city where he is briefly tortured, however, the location is compromised and he ends up in the sole care of the out-of-his-depth Weston.
What follows is a relatively standard double-crossing narrative, with concrete-jawed gunmen and untrustworthy senior authority figures attempting to thwart Weston’s desperate attempts to prove that he is a real, grown-up spy. If my assessment of Reynolds’ character seems insincere, that’s because he never appears more than a wide-eyed, lost school boy; opposite Washington, who spends most of the movie on Denzel autopilot, he seems almost child-like.
Weston acts as a blank slate protagonist, i.e. he is bland enough for the audience to project themselves onto his character, theoretically allowing us to empathise more with him. The problem is, few of us will actually want to relocate ourselves to Johannesburg as the rookie figure, we’d probably all rather be Frost despite his cut-throat nature. At numerous times the film tries to redeem Frost, to make him seem like he may actually be a decent chap overall, but it’s far from convincing, the politics in particular are highly ambiguous.
At its heart, Safe House is a traditional action picture. There are numerous car chases that are well filmed, slick and exhilarating. The hand-to-hand combat sequences and shootouts are less impressive with predictable patterns and a lack of atmosphere contributing to them seeming flaccid and a tad dull. While the majority of the film never completely descends into mediocrity, the final chapter contains so little emotional involvement you’ll wonder why exactly you’re supposed to care.
The above may all sound watchable, if bog-standard, but there are numerous annoyances that transcend it from “a good way to spend a couple of hours” to “why did i bother?” Some incongruous editing and inconsistent character development transport the film into the latter territory.
If you’re a huge fan of Denzel and a sucker for the action genre, you could do worse than Safe House. The majority of us, however, may as well just rewatch any of the Bourne films, which are superior in every disceranble aspect.