There's a piquant bit of irony on display in the first half-hour of Safe House. After a tense and well-executed game of cat and mouse between Denzel Washington and a cadre of assassins, our anti-hero is dragged from the American consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, where he has sought refuge, to a CIA safe house, where he is promptly waterboarded. Coupled with the hidden memory stick that proves how intelligence bureaus all over the world have been profiting off and covering up their murderous misdeeds (can you say Wikileaks?), and you'd think you were stepping back into the 1970s, when espionage thrillers were not-so-veiled critiques of American foreign policy.
No such luck. By the time the bad guys hit the safe house, forcing wet-behind-the-ears Ryan Reynolds to flee with notorious rogue agent Tobin Frost (Washington) — a name so ridiculously fake it could only exist in a movie — we realize that neither Swedish director Daniel Espinosa nor screenwriter David Guggenheim have any intention of giving the audience anything more than an uninspired, second rate mash-up of Tony Scott's filmography.
From its paint-by-numbers plotting to its incoherent "shaky cam" action sequences to its "Oh, no, there's a traitor at Langley" plot twist, Safe House is a monotonous slog through sub-Bourne clichés and lazy scripting. For instance, Frost has enough badass moves to take out legions of opponents, escape from the trunk of a car, survive two different crashes — but is thwarted by a novice agent with a pair of handcuffs. Guggenheim's script has nothing to say and adds nothing new to the genre, making one wonder why it was such a hot property in the first place. It must be because the studios saw an opportunity to team two A-list actors (and sexiest men alive) Denzel Washington (class of 1996) and Ryan Reynolds (class of 2010).
Espinosa's direction may not be as frenetic as Scott's (Man on Fire, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3) but his approach is equally disjointed, delivering car chases, explosions, glass-shattering brawls and shoot-outs that lack both tension and spatial geography. It works well enough in the early scenes but loses impact as the script sets up yet another meaningless obstacle, padding the film's running time to two hours.
Washington is a damn fine actor, and once again excels at playing the mischievous guy you aren't certain you can trust. But his character is pretty sketchily written and hardly worthy of his talents (though I'm sure the paycheck he received was just peachy). Reynolds works hard to shed his smart-ass persona and mostly delivers, but, frankly, isn't as strong a foil as Ethan Hawke or even Chris Pine. The cast is rounded out with old pros Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson, who provide the audience with an A or B choice as to who has sold out the agency. Neither really matters.
In many ways Safe House exemplifies the kind of mediocre movie Hollywood pushes into the January-February release slot. It's nothing you haven't seen elsewhere, and it's not as good — even with Denzel's impish smile.