Espionage thrillers have gone through some weird metamorphoses over the years. What started as cold black and white post-war pictures of malaise turned into stylized widescreen glob-trotting romps. But ever since Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Identity sequels, these movies have been about terrorism and government cover-ups, set in third world countries and filmed with shaky handheld cameras and blown out colour schemes. Safe House falls firmly into this camp, loaded with nods to dirty dealings and water boarding. It’s a fairly entertaining movie, just one that definitely feels like it’s coming out a few years too late. The Bourne sequels grabbed onto current events and scandals and spun them into blockbuster action flicks. Five years later, it feels a bit like dipping back into a well. Decent or not, we’ve seen all this stuff before and it’s not quite as exciting anymore.
Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, an unproven CIA agent whittling away his time in a dead end assignment monitoring a US safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He spends most of his time counting down the hours on the clock until he can hang out with his attractive French girlfriend. Then one day, it all goes to hell as tends to happen in these sorts of movies. A legendary ex-CIA agent Tobin Frost shows up in shackles, played by Denzel Washington in scenery-chewing mode. Frost used to be a top agent, but became disgusted by the practices of the organization and went rogue, determined to uncover their corruption. He’s managed to get ahold of a microchip detailing all of the dirty dealings of American and British special agents on the take and that lands him in the safe house. Within minutes a team of apparent terrorists show up to try and kill Frost, so Matt cuffs him and takes him on the run. The only problem is that now the inexperienced agent doesn’t know if he can trust his superiors with this sensitive information and his supposed enemy starts talking much more sense than the CIA.
It’s all pretty simple espionage stuff filled with double agents, dirty secrets, sudden bursts of violence, and an underlying sense of post 9/11 government skepticism. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (Snabba Cash) tries to out shaky-cam Greengrass at his own game, staging elaborate shootouts, car chases, and fistfights with that special brand of hard-to-see verite styled intimacy. In theory, that should lead to an action packed thriller with a brain, and I suppose in a certain sense that’s the case. The problem is that these flicks are quickly becoming generic. Seeing a movie star get waterboarded in a blockbuster doesn’t feel subversive anymore. It’s almost as familiar as an elaborate Bond villain deathtrap. The filmmakers get points for effort, but are a few years too late to qualify for originality or relevancy.
The performances are definitely strong across the board. Reynolds is a good actor and does the struggling hero thing well, even if it’s still hard to distance him from his comedic persona. Washington knows how to play a bad guy with a conscience and is almost incapable of delivering a bad performance. On the supporting front, Robert Patrick gets to play government tough guy for the first time in years, while Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, and Brendan Gleeson (sporting a distracting American accent) play top CIA officers in a control room who take turns acting suspiciously like the film’s secret villain. The actors all do what they were hired to do (except for Nora Arnezeder’s painfully generic girlfriend who is mercifully only in a few scenes), and David Guggenheim’s script offers a nice balance of paranoid suspense and bone crunching action.
As an entertainment machine, the movie’s ok. It just never transcends into something special or even memorable. Everything the filmmakers do well has just been done before and better.. This is cookie cutter studio genre filmmaking that takes a successful formula and repackages it with new faces. I guess if you haven’t seen a politically charged action movie from the last 10 years, it will seem exciting. Otherwise, Safe House is best suited to watch hungover on cable to a rousing response of “Oh, that was better than I thought it would be.”