It’s safe to say that any film starring the charismatic Denzel Washington is placed on the box office map long before it’s even had a chance of a good run and further scrutiny. Although both the Training Day star and Safe House director Daniel Espinosa – steering his first English-language project here – were against labelling the film ‘an action thriller’ in London recently, it is in effect such, so will naturally come up against the inevitable Bourne benchmark comparison.
Ryan Reynolds stars opposite Washington in this as young CIA agent Matt Weston who is tasked with looking after fugitive and rogue ex-agent Tobin Frost (Washington) in a safe house in Cape Town. However, the safe house is attacked, and Weston finds himself on the run with his charge from a yet undistinguishable enemy bent on destroying Frost – and him.
On the whole, Safe House provides Reynolds with the opportunity to prove his worth and very much hold his own opposite such a distinguished action-role guru in Washington. It also places the Canadian actor in the edgier, grittier roles he is best in, away from the rom-com slush and Green Lantern debacle. This relentless, often exhausting but electrifying race for survival does mean Reynolds called on to do less acting and more reacting than the acclaimed Buried – both of which claim to be psychological offerings. That said Reynolds is incredibly watchable in this, fighting off his fair share of attacks like a seasoned action-man pro while not forgetting his character’s inner motivation and sensitivities. His physical pinnacle in this is the end scene opposite Joel Kinnaman as Keller that causes pause for breath.
Naturally, Washington does not fail to delight once more in yet another older, wiser anti-mentor role, but with a less clear agenda than normal. His character Frost’s dynamic with Weston is what galvanises the thrill ride across the South African city. But without Reynolds in tandem, Washington’s performance is somewhat complacent in nature, playing his same moves out all over again. Even though the actor defines Frost as a ‘sociopath’, both superior acting and empathetic when he needs to be, as soon as the cat is out of the bag as to why he’s on the run, the reasons for the chase itself lessens in impact. It is purely enjoying watching the ease with which the Reynolds-Washington screen match works that makes Safe House more entertaining than it ought to be. But it’s no South African Bourne.
Its villains at the heart of power also seem too under developed and one dimensional to really be worthy opponents in the field when the chips fall. We have witnessed too many military-style ‘main control’ rooms in our time with the very latest hum of technology that we can be forgiven for becoming a little blasé about it all. As most of the fight from this side is centred within this environment – admittedly with a couple of decent hand-to-hand and rooftop-to-rooftop chase and combat scenes thrown in that smack of Bourne (well, there is a large contingent of the crew who worked on both films), by the time the real enemy is revealed we are vaguely fazed by the inevitable standoff. It all boils down once more to the talents of both Reynolds and Washington for the majority of the time – and surprisingly more so the former.
Safe House is an easy-on-the-brain – but not necessarily always on the eye with some of the whizzy editing – action flick, pure and simple, with two highly attractive cast members doing the very best out of the situation and managing to hold your attention throughout the flimsy scenario. The fact that Washington admitted to not liking the script one bit when he first came on board, and subsequently helped rewrite it over several months, is very telling as to the original draft. But what is even more intriguing is how dangerously convincing Washington – like Frost – is that he saw this as a manipulation exercise in itself, which is more exciting a premise to contemplate than we should be giving credit to ‘sociopath’ Frost in this.
Less of the juggernaut that was Unstoppable, but still highly digestible Washington affair, if white-knuckle ride scenes with a temporary lack of oxygen to the lungs are on the agenda, you could do far worse in the company of lesser actors.