A formulaic thriller from the Tony Scott-Joe Carnahan school of filmmaking, Safe House is exactly what its name implies — a safe, watchable, and ultimately forgettable espionage drama that provides a couple of hours’ slick worth of diversion that evaporates shortly after the credits roll. It’s Three Days of the Condor stripped to bone.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Mark Weston, a low-level CIA operative whose assignment is to maintain and operate a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Of course, he’s the young turk who desperately wants a chance to prove himself and earn a field position. Faster than you can say “Be careful what you wish for”, Weston is paid a surprise visit by a special forces team escorting a VIP captive: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a rogue CIA operative who turned double agent and began secrets a decade earlier.
Frost has something that everbody wants, and a few minutes into his waterboarding session with black ops guys (something he shrugs off as if it were dip local pool) the house is assaulted by armed thugs. Everyone is killed but Frost and Weston, who’s forced to take charge of the captive, evade the bad guys, and find a way to get to safety even though he doesn’t know whom to trust.
It’s well-written and properly paced, but in a safe, workmanlike way. Rising director David Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim, but neither does it go out of its way to establish any complexity of character or story. There’s very little in the way of ambiguity going on: Weston is the likeable good guy who is out of his depth but is eventually transformed into an ideal agent, Frost is the likeable anti-hero and consummate badass that we wish we could be, and everyone else is a stock character brought to life by veteran actors such as Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, and Ruben Blades. The story plays out pretty much the way you assume it’s going to once you’re 30 minutes in, and you’ve got about a 50-50 shot at guessing the identity of the obligatory mole.
That said, Safe House is still an enjoyably diverting piece of genre filmmaking, better than the recent Contraband. For all it’s telegraphed plot punches, it’s made with considerable but not overwhelming style, with gorgeous cinematography by Oliver Wood (who photographed all three Bourne movies) great chemistry among a talented cast, and sharp, nuanced editing that cuts across multiple scenes and fast-paced action without losing coherence. It may not be an action movie stand-out, but it does put Espinosa on the radar.