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In Universal Pictures’ espionage thriller Safe House, Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) plays Matt Weston, an ambitious young CIA agent toiling in obscurity as the keeper of a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Frustrated with his endlessly boring assignment, he’s unexpectedly granted an opportunity to prove himself when Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a dangerous former agent turned traitor, is brought in for interrogation. When the safe house is attacked by mercenaries looking for Frost, Weston is forced to take the cunning fugitive on a deadly road trip that will test the mettle of both men and expose corruption at the highest levels of government.
Deja vu plot devices abound in Safe House, which borrows liberally from superior movies like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. However, director Daniel Espinosa takes the best of these familiar story elements and shoots them with the same frenetic documentary-like style attack that worked brilliantly in the Bourne films. The many car chases move fast, so fast that it feels as though the camera won’t be able to keep pace with the action. The intense gun battles are reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat, only instead of taking place in the heart of downtown Los Angeles the gunplay escalates in and among the shantytowns of Cape Town. The brutal fight choreography is both gritty and realistic — in fact, the whole film feels like a 90-minute big-budget Ultimate Fighting Championship match, only with no rules and an abundance of cars, fists and guns.
A stellar cast elevates the script beyond its familiar spy vs. spy trappings. As the hardened fugitive Frost, Washington is still the coolest actor on the A-list. Case in point: While being interrogated (by the always-excellent Robert Patrick), Frost impishly volunteers advice on how he might be tortured more effectively. He also doesn’t run from the 15 mercenaries, opting instead to swagger away. Frost’s longtime criminal associate, forger Carlos Villar (Predator 2‘s Ruben Blades), perhaps puts it best when he affectionately calls him “the black Dorian Gray.” For all his sins and transgressions against his country, Frost is engaging and charming.
Spouting pearls of espionage wisdom like, “Everyone betrays everyone” and “After a while, the truth sounds like a lie,” Frost is especially fun to watch as he dismantles Weston’s defenses and gets under his skin. Washington and Reynolds have good chemistry, and their evolving master and apprentice relationship adds another layer of complexity.
Reynolds may have a list of iconic comic book characters to his credit, but his conflicted, ambitious Agent Weston is actually a far more impressive hero than any of them. The actor imbues Weston with an interesting vulnerability that surfaces just after he chokes out a relentless killer thug or when he lies to his pretty girlfriend to protect her from harm. Weston’s journey from green agent to killer badass works because of the very real fear Reynolds struggles to master while trying to keep both himself and Frost alive.
Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff) round out the cast as Weston’s superiors at CIA headquarters. Unfortunately, they don’t have much to do beyond shouting exposition and furnishing contrived plot roadblocks meant to keep Weston and Frost in danger and on the run.
A cerebral, carefully plotted spy thriller Safe House is not. But this fun, if ultimately forgettable, film is made better by the performances of its stars and its relentless supply of action and violence.
Safe House opens today nationwide.