Neither bold and fresh nor offensively incompetent, Safe House serves as another example of a by-the-numbers spy thriller swimming in the wake of the colossal Bourne franchise. Director Daniel Espinosa creates a polished Bourne clone featuring solid performances from Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, but ultimately hindered by a cliché riddled screenplay.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Matt Weston, a young, underappreciated CIA agent tasked with maintaining a safe house. Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a rogue agent desperately trying to prevent his MacGuffin from falling into the hands of a group of vicious, trigger-happy bad guys. Frost, initially appearing with wild graying hair, slightly untamed goatee, and bone white teeth, has the appearance of a caged animal, standing in stark contrast to the well groomed, conventionally handsome Weston. Both Reynolds and Washington are well cast, and though we know that the two are basically going to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by the end of the movie, both actors convincingly go through the motions in getting to that point.
Sure enough, baddies assault the safe house, and the action begins in earnest. Espinosa films the violence in the now typical style of the Bourne series. Gun battles and hand to hand fights are shot with hand held cameras. No shot lingers for more than a fraction of second. Thus, the filmmakers treat us to a series of fights and car chases with no sense of geography within the sequence and no sense of who is doing what to whom. The action is at times almost impossible to decipher, and the soundtrack amps up to compensate for the lack of coherent visual information.
In between Weston and Frost battling assorted mercenaries in and around Johannesburg landmarks, a collection of middle aged suits, headed by Brendan Gleeson, watch from a CIA control room, trading barbs with each other and occasionally vomiting exposition. Around them, anonymous analysts bathed computer monitor light click clack away on keyboards interjecting additional character back story. These scenes also appear to be shot handheld, and the exposition is filmed with the same restraint and coherency of the action sequences. The story relentlessly plods on from action set piece to action set piece, culminating in a third act plot twist that can be scene coming from a mile away.
It’s hard to fault the director for how he handles the material here, because he’s hardly a pioneer of this chaotic filmmaking style. He’s merely following the crowd. A crowd that happens to be popular with general audiences at the moment. Taking into account that he is essentially a student of the Paul Greengrass school of action filmmaking, Daniel Espinosa succeeds at what he sets out to do. Safe House is well cast, the set pieces are clever and interesting, and the movie is never boring. Still, I can’t help but yearn for a day when actions movies are once again are filmed with Steadicams and sequences are less jarringly edited. Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire was a step in the right direction, and hopefully more directors of action movies will follow in his footsteps.
Additionally, the screenplay may have benefitted from a little humor. All of the characters are perpetually mopey. A theme reappears throughout the movie that the life of a spy is a burden. That message might work when shoehorned into a slow burn thriller like The American, where the life of the titular spy is monotonous and lonely. Not so much here. In the universe of this movie, being a spy means globe trotting to exotic locations like South Africa, sleeping with gorgeous French women, getting into high octane gun battles with international terrorists, and participating in bitchin’ car chases. Oh, the horror.