Title: Safe House
Directed By: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Denzel Washington, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Joel Kinnaman, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick, Fares Fares
Proper pacing is a wonderful thing, especially when you’ve got a movie about a hyper intelligent rogue CIA agent wreaking havoc with some potentially devastating information. Move too slowly and you run the risk of bogging moviegoers down with details that could ultimately become too cumbersome to sort out. Then again, move too quickly and you might not leave enough time for an audience to absorb all the necessary details. No, Safe House doesn’t nestle itself near the happy medium, rather veers towards the quicker side, but leaves just enough breathing room to give the story some weight and still solidify it as a thrill ride.
Working for the CIA sounds like a pretty cool gig, right? Well, apparently before you get to the secret agent stuff, you’ve got to babysit a safe house and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) has been stuck with that dull duty one month too many. Meanwhile, the CIA’s most notorious traitor, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), puts an end to his decade-long hideout and is sent to Matt’s Cape Town safe house.
Matt’s shocked and honored when one of the most brilliant and illusive men in the world is put under his care, but is caught even more off guard when his facility is ambushed by men after Frost. The two narrowly escape and it’s up to Matt to get Frost to a new secure location. However, Frost may be turned, but he still retains all the ability that made him one of the CIA’s best and his manipulation tactics slowly eat away at Matt’s steadfastness.
Cue the tacky trailer voice over – get ready for the ride of your life! Okay, maybe not the ride of your like, but Safe House is downright relentless. The film opens with a rather quiet look at Matt’s life – uneventful day at the office, but honest and loving relationship at home. However, this is the perfect example of being careful about what you wish for because right after Matt touches base with his mentor, a CIA higher up, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), about potentially being promoted to a case officer, Tobin Frost comes to his door and from there, the action is upped tenfold and, thanks to director Daniel Espinosa, it works beautifully.
Safe House in general is very “real” looking. It’s shot on 35mm so the footage is particularly grainy and cinematographer Oliver Wood uses a documentary-like shooting style, which lets him keep close to the actors and use the image to really get into the characters’ heads. But as far as the action goes, even beyond the camerawork, it looks incredibly authentic. The blowout in the safe house is absolutely vicious and then, out on the streets, we get a couple of car chases that will truly have you on the edge of your seat. The hand-to-hand combat is pitch perfect as well, looking impeccably genuine and going beyond the standard fist fight, using unique angles and locations to offer some fresher battles.
While Safe House does get quite a bit of its adrenaline from its hefty dose of action, Reynolds and Washington manage to create almost an equal amount of suspense during their quieter moments. Washington strikes a perfect blend between playing the villain and keeping Frost in likable territory, somewhat forcing us to honor him for his tactical prowess. As for Matt, he’s made out to be the noble hard worker right from the start and then Reynolds absolutely runs away with the part, using his chemistry with Washington to support Matt’s transition. The two play off each other exceptionally well, something that also stems from David Guggenheim’s work, as his script boasts an especially complicated and intriguing relationship between the leads.
A handful of the other characters are fairly straightforward, especially Vera Farmiga’s Catherine Linklater, the all-business CIA Branch Chief, and the rather forgettable Sam Shepard as the CIA Deputy Director or Operations. On the other hand, Joel Kinnaman manages to make quite the impression with one of Safe House’s smaller parts courtesy of a solid performance and a particularly nasty fight scene.
Safe House is one of those movies that could have easily fallen victim to an overly complicated plot, oozing with details that go in one ear and out the other, but are masked by an overdose of action. Yes, there are one or two plot points that might go over your head and Safe House doesn’t stop for a moment to give you a chance to digest the details you do catch, but the story is presented in such a well-constructed way that it’s practically handed over to you, letting you both enjoy the action and still respect the high stakes of the situation.