For years, Denzel Washington has created one of the best resumes in Hollywood by essentially just playing himself. Take a minute and think of the first five Denzel movies that come to mind. For me, it’s Training Day, John Q., Man on Fire, Glory, and American Gangster. If your list is in any way similar to mine, think about Denzel’s performances in all of those movies. Were it not for maybe the clothes he was wearing, or the setting of the scene, do you think you could even discern certain Denzel performances from others?
If you can, you must be really good at crosswords and “Where’s Waldo?” because I seriously can’t even begin to tell them apart. Still, I believe that that’s a big part of Denzel’s appeal. You know what to expect, and it works every time. If it worked the first 12 times, there’s a pretty big chance that it’s going to work a 13th time. In the newest vehicle for Denzel, Safe House, he plays Tobin Frost. In the mid 80s and up until the late 90s, Frost was one of the top CIA agents in the world. He went rouge in 2002 for unknown reasons, and has been on the run from the US government ever since.
Discovered in South Africa, Frost is placed in the care of Matt Weston, a young and optimistic CIA agent who has spent the last year working as a safe house operator, never able to see any real action. Frost is brought in by an extraction team led by Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick), but the location of the house is compromised, and with the extraction team dead, Weston is in charge of Frost’s whereabouts.
Back at his apartment, Weston has a beautiful French girlfriend with whom he is madly in love with, and vice versa. The obvious conflict with having a relationship in his line of work makes it extremely hard to explain to her what is going on among all of the commotion. The subplot of Weston’s lady friend makes for interesting character development later in the film when he must make the difficult choice between the safety of the woman he loves, and the strong feelings he has for her.
Stateside, orders from Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), and Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), three of the agency’s executive officers, instruct Weston to successfully bring Frost out to a new safe house in rural South Africa. While trying to get to their location, Weston and Frost are being tracked by a group of men after a file that Frost has hidden. Inside the file is very valuable information that may just be the end of government secrecy as we know it.
Safe House is Denzel’s first film since 2010’s Unstoppable, his second train movie after The Taking of Pelham 123. Safe House is an extremely welcome return to form for Denzel, who turns in a fantastically familiar performance as Tobin Frost. Ryan Reynolds is also surprisingly effective as the up and coming CIA agent who just wants to do the right thing. Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard all do wonderfully in their supporting roles, but Gleeson really steals the show, as usual, playing yet another diverse character to add to his already eclectic resume.
The chemistry between Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington is dynamite. Their banter is often revealing, quick, and engrossing, serving as an equal to the heart-racing action sequences littered throughout the film. They both seem very comfortable in their characters, and even more comfortable with each other, which makes for some wonderfully tense and sometimes hilarious scenes between the two. I’d love to see them star in a comedy together with Ryan Reynolds leading the way instead of Denzel, because honestly, they make a great pair.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa, Safe House makes good use of the effective shaky cam style that has been popular for a few years now, editing together some stylish action sequences, as well as some tense dialogue that moves the film along at a very brisk pace, to say the least, because once the action starts, it doesn’t let up until the end credits roll, something that can’t be said for a lot of the other “action-packed” spy movies that have been released recently.
The fast paced but intelligent script by first time feature film screenwriter, David Guggenheim, manages to be action packed but also contains a considerable amount of character development as well as good enough dialogue that doesn’t distract from the movie’s serious tone. The biggest success in the screenplay, though, is its integration of culture to service its plot, including a breathtaking arena sequence that segways nicely into a display of South Africa’s slums, including a nice cameo performance by Ruben Blades.
All in all, Safe House is a thrilling ride that is better than it has any right to be, offering a slew of excellent performances, some great action, and a script that takes you on a wild ride through the mind of a traitor, as well as through South Africa’s best and worst. If you liked the trailer, you’ll love the movie, as the advertising doesn’t misrepresent the film like many other previews that we see on TV. Safe House, among many other things, is entirely predictable from the first scene, but that shouldn’t stop you from what is otherwise a thrilling ride at the movies.