“No One is Safe,” reads the tagline for Safe House, and that includes the audience. The action-thriller, set in Cape Town, South Africa, exists in a world of constantly changing arbitrary rules—sometimes being thrown through a window hurts, and sometimes it doesn’t—errant gunshots, random explosions, and lots and lots of noise.
Denzel Washington is his of late usual charming yet sinister self, playing Tobin Frost, an incredibly elusive and much sought after former CIA-agent turned traitor. In the opening, his shifty-eyes and controlled gait suggest something is off, and soon after the gunshots start, a chase ensues, and Frost seeks refuge at an American consulate.
While questions surround his sudden appearance and illicit dealings (C.I.A control room assemble!), Frost is sent to a safe house, which, yes, fails almost instantly at being safe.
The housekeeper who becomes wrapped up with an attack on Frost is Ryan Reynolds, a dewy-eyed yet indestructible—at least when it comes to car crashes–Matt Weston, the aspiring agent who is given the tragic existence of working at rarely used CIA house in beautiful Cape Town, while dating an exotic French woman named Ana and looking like Ryan Reynolds.
Reynolds and Frost escape the house and seek refuge while fighting various bad guys, bystanders, and each other. Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson are always charming, and have to work hard to make you care about them as C.I.A bosses, and never fully succeed. They go back and forth as to the motives behind both Frost and Weston, but these conversations only serve as interludes between violent chases.
It is not exactly clear whether the movie is trying really hard to be emotionally compelling and almost spectacularly fails saves for a select few moments, or whether it is trying to be an obdurately violent action film that only accidentally alights on feeling. It is clear we are supposed to care about Weston when he talks to his boss seeking promotion and then bangs his fist on a locker when he doesn’t get it—but that doesn’t happen.
Still, randomly, when faced with life or death situations, and when he is forced to create ever elaborate lies to his girlfriend, Weston evokes a bit of emotion. It is the character of Frost though, that when given opportunity to speak at length, becomes winning, but that is more a testament to the acting acumen of Mr. Washington than the script or director.
We are given no real reason to trust director Daniel Espinosa, whose maximalist approach and excessive shaky camera work add no sense of realism to the movie, only distraction.
Safe House is not about moral relativism but almost could be. Frost gives Weston lessons on life, professional and personal, such as who not to trust in government and how to tell Ana the truth about his job. The two discuss what it takes to kill someone, and whether or not it matters if they are ‘innocent,’ and not surprisingly, Weston’s physical and moral strength will be tested.
It is quickly clear to the viewer that someone inside the C.I.A. is doing something unsavoury, but the film reminds us several times anyway in case the explosions and gunshots are distracting. Many attempts at gasp-moments are made, and most are unexpected, but they are fleeting, much like the rest of the movie. It is hard to be awed by the charm of anyone other than Mr. Washington, and it is hard not to root for him even as he goes toe-to-toe with Mr. Reynolds.
Ultimately there is little depth to the movie that tries to be bigger than it is, but with so much action and violence, it is easy—and necessary–to let go of any meaning.