Movie Review: Safe House
By Matthew Huntley
February 16, 2012
There was a time when Safe House might have been a good movie, which isn’t to say it’s a bad one, but there have been so many like it that it now feels relegated to the phrase, “Off the old assembly line.” The movie has the same look, tone and narrative developments as several other raw and gritty action thrillers (Con Air, Training Day, Spy Game, etc.), but it lacks an essential fresh angle for us to get excited about.
Once again, the plot centers on a rookie in some avenue of law enforcement, this time a housekeeper for a CIA safe house. His name is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a young man whose job is exactly like it sounds: to prepare and keep the house when the agency needs to use it, either as a hideout or as a place to interrogate suspects, often through secret and illegitimate means.
Weston is your typical straight arrow - honest, innocent and inexperienced. He keeps fit and has an undeniable likability. All the kid wants is a promotion so he can take better care of his girlfriend, a French woman (Nora Arnezeder) who doesn’t suspect he works for the government. Given the nature of the genre, the plot requires she’ll either be put in danger or warned about being put in danger. She and Matt live together in Cape Town, South Africa, where he spends most of his day waiting idly, bouncing a ball and learning French. He complains to his mentor, Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), “How am I supposed to gain any field experience looking at four walls all day long?” How indeed?
One unforeseen opportunity comes when the CIA brings in Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a rogue agent and traitor suspected of selling intel to the world’s highest bidders. Frost is, of course, the best of the best, able to snap a man’s neck in a matter of seconds, not to mention anticipate his enemies’ every move and narrowly escape seizure and death when all the laws of logic and physics suggest otherwise. He’s carrying some highly classified files stored on a small microchip, which he injects into himself and that make him an inevitable target for a group of nameless bad guys. Frost inexplicably turns himself in to the U.S. consulate in Cape Town, after which he’s taken to the safe house and tortured until the same bad guys break in and attempt to either kidnap or kill him.
That’s where Weston comes in. After all hell breaks loose, he hijacks a car, orders Frost into the trunk and speeds across the city like a madman. Before long, Frost is driving at gunpoint and he and Weston engage in a battle of wills and wits as Frost reminds him that it’s the kid’s job to protect his houseguest. We’ve heard this kind of back and forth dialogue between rookies and veterans before, so it’s not hard to imagine where their conversations will go. Frost gives Weston the low-down on CIA lingo and what statements like, “You’ve done a good job, son. We’ll take it from here,” really mean. He also lets Weston know his career choice automatically precludes him from building an honest relationship with his girlfriend and that it’s just a matter of time before Weston becomes privy to the corruption taking place in the organization, which supposedly led Frost astray.
But Weston holds steady and says he’s not going to let Frost get inside his head. He follows protocol and continually checks in with his superiors, including Agent Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and CIA Director Whitford (Same Shepard), who tell him to stay off the grid. They’re worried because they know Weston is the only man they got to see that Frost is transported and delivered safely.
Safe House is perfectly watchable in its own right and while the actors are all convincing in their roles, they also seem a bit too comfortable in them, which underlines the movie’s inherent problem: the characters, plot, action and twists more or less function the way they’re “supposed” to in this genre. Director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim don’t allow any room for the unexpected and, as the plot treads along, it becomes more apparent the filmmakers aren’t going to take many risks. For instance, and I’m no genius, I suspected the bad guy’s true identity fairly early on but was hoping the screenplay would prove me wrong. I was also hoping the movie, as a whole, would offer more than just routine chase scenes, shoot-outs and a conventional, moralistic conclusion. In this day and age, I assumed it would want to be different and offer greater insight into the characters and their jobs as CIA agents instead of merely placing them in a generic story. As it turns out, I was assuming too much.
You aren’t likely to walk out of Safe House angry or annoyed, but just sort of apathetic. You’ll find it hunkers into a traditional mold and pretty much stays there. Ironically, the tagline reads, “No one is safe,” and while that may be true for some of the characters, it’s not true for the movie itself.