Playing it safe
Well-played action-drama gets generic treatment
At least part of the time, Safe House is high-octane action-movie entertainment. Some of that time, and other times as well, it takes on the air of a political thriller while also taking time here and there to pose enigmatic questions about its two central characters.
This discordant mixture of slam-bang action and food-for-thought drama gives Safe House a peculiar liveliness, most of the time. But the always tentative excitements and virtues of this picture yield increasingly modest returns as the action builds to its various climaxes.
The central premise has a young, untried CIA agent named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) charged with the desperate task of bringing in Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a notorious rogue agent. That increasingly complicated pairing plays out against the larger backdrop of counter-espionage and intra-agency scheming, all ostensibly in the name of national security.
Initially, Frost is the larger-than-life antagonist to Weston’s perhaps life-size protagonist, but the nature of that match-up shifts as events unfold. Frost is both more and less than he at first seems. Davis Guggenheim’s script doles out a fuller picture of the man’s background and identity, bit by plot-swerving bit.
The story’s real antagonists, it turns out, are elsewhere. Given the requirements of the espionage genre, that comes as no great surprise, but it does provide a modicum of narrative logic for the shifting phases of Frost’s frantically improvised quasi-partnership with Weston. In our eyes, and seemingly in Weston’s as well, Frost morphs through multiple guises—evil genius, wary collaborator, sly mentor, clandestine rebel, oblique role model, sacrificial victim, etc.
The plausibility of these shifts (and of Weston’s own character) gets increasingly thin as the twists of plot and character become more frenetic. And the movie itself, after starting out with a grab bag of disparate but intriguing premises, gradually reverts to merely generic moves.
The film’s flashy, propulsive Bourne-style action sequences are its main highlight-reel material. But they are weightless and abstract in ways that the best of the dialogue sequences are not. Several Frost-Weston scenes work especially well, and a couple of Weston’s scenes with his French girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) and Frost’s ill-fated encounter with an old ally (Ruben Blades) have a nice dramatic weight to them as well.
There’s definite gravity in the supporting cast—Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard (all as CIA honchos) and Blades and Arnezeder as well—but all their roles prove generically disposable. Washington is good as the formidably elusive Frost, and Reynolds delivers a workmanlike performance—with a little help from flash-editing in the action sequences.