Cast: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), Carlos Villar (Rubén Blades), Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder), Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick), Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham)
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Theatrical release: 02/12/2012 DVD Date: 06/05/2012
Rating: R Running Time: 115 minutes
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Review: Safe House is one of those films that tries to touch on several themes and ultimately fails to (significantly) deliver on any of them. The three major themes here are mentor/protégé, adversary/partner, action/thriller, and to a much lesser extent star-crossed lovers/romance.
Let's deal with the easy one first: every one of the romantic scenes could have — should have — been excised from this film. They are at best a distraction. Fortunately there are only a handful of them, with each and every one awkwardly handled.
This really isn't an action/thriller either, despite the number of scenes that may suggest otherwise. Many seem gratuitous, addling little to the storyline or even measurably contributing to the film's suspense, of which there is surprisingly little.
What works best, and what should have been the emphasis of the director, is either of the remaining themes: mentor/protégé and adversary/partner. Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent. Though you'd think he would be vilified by his former supervisors and co-workers, he's actually admired, in recognition for his talents as an agent and his skills at evading capture for over a decade. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a relatively young agent who, consciously or not, aspires to be someone like Tobin Frost. The two characters (actors) have a considerable amount of screen time in each other's company, and they work well together. Their initial adversarial relationship, later partnership is credible. The film would have been much stronger had it focused more on these two and far less on the suplot involving a mole within the CIA. (More on that later.)
Still, it's not a bad story overall. Weston is a housekeeper — a safe house keeper — in South Africa. It must be one of the most boring jobs on the planet, watching over an empty house hoping someone will "check in" and disappointed when months go by and there are no guests. Fluent in several languages and in peak physical condition, he wants — demands — a field assignment. But he's 47th (or something like that) in line and has no hope of being anything other than a housekeeper for the forseeable future. Until Tobin Frost walks into the US Embassy in Johannesburg and is immediately arrested. (Here's a minor plot point I didn't get: Why dit the CIA want him moved from the secure embassy to an arguably much less secure safe house? Possibly to give the embassy officials plausible deniability in the event the CIA tortures Frost?) Anyway, the safe house is almost immediately breached, suggesting a mole within the CIA that is working for the other side … or maybe just for him/herself. (This isn't a spoiler: it's so obvious not only that a mole exists, but indeed who it is, clues given away almost from the very beginning of the film. And that brings up another plot point I didn't quite get: Why is the mole after Tobin Frost? Of course the mole's name is on a secret list being carried by Frost, but Frost would be selling that list to the highest bidder, and would hardly include the US or any of its allies on the list of invited bidders. So what's the risk to the mole?) Weston sees an opportunity to write his own ticket by keeping Frost close to his side, and turning him in at the first opportunity.
I most enjoyed the dynamic between Weston and Frost and would like to have seen more of it. It reminded me ever so slightly of Crimson Tide, where the roles are reversed, with Denzel Washington playing the young idealist to Gene Hackman's larger than life realist. (To be sure, Crimson Tide is a vastly superior film to Safe House.)
I was entertained by this film but am not terribly enthusiastic about it. Mostly a near miss for me. Solid characters in Tobin Frost and Matt Weston, a reasonably coherent screenplay, and adequate if not entirely inspired direction.