I found it instructive that, when I told my soon-to-be-25-year-old son that I'd seen Safe House and that it reminded me of Three Days of the Condor, he replied, "That reference would be relevant if I knew what Three Days of the Condor was."
(He also said, "...and if I knew what Safe House was," but that proves the wrong point. When I referred to it as the Ryan Reynolds-Denzel Washington film, he said, "Oh, that one.")
Safe House actually has Tony Scott written all over it. It's even got Washington, who has been the go-to actor for Mr. Style-over-Substance for the past decade or or more.
But this is faux Tony Scott, just as most real Tony Scott is faux Ridley. Like a real Tony Scott film, this movie has less on its mind than it thinks and more time to say it in. The result is a mildly tense thriller in the same vein as, um, Three Days of the Condor (a well-regarded 1975 thriller by Sydney Pollack about one man's discovery that the CIA just might be a teensy bit out of control).
Instead of Robert Redford, however, director Daniel Espinosa has Ryan Reynolds, playing a low-level "housekeeper" for the CIA. Specifically, Reynolds' Matt Weston has spent the past year running the cover operation for and maintenance of a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Another few months, his boss tells him, and he might be ready for a posting as a field operative.
Then, with little warning, an extraction team shows up on his doorstep with a "guest." But not just any guest: This is Tobin Frost (Washington), a CIA rogue who disappeared nine years ago and who has been selling intelligence from and to anyone who has the money and the access ever since. He's considered a great catch -- even if he did walk into the American Embassy in Cape Town and give himself up. Now he's been deposited at the safe house, where the team clears its throat by waterboarding him (even though he's offered to tell them whatever they want to know).
Just as they're sharpening the knives for Phase 2, however, they're interrupted when the safe house is compromised: In other words, a bunch of thugs with automatic weapons breaks in as though the building was a feature on tourist maps. They kill everyone except Matt, who escapes with Frost in the trunk of a stolen car.
Now what? Even as CIA bigshots Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson sit in the U.S. debating whether Matt is in cahoots with Frost -- and make plans to find them both -- Weston and Frost are chasing around South Africa, trying to stay one step ahead of the assassination squad. And, oh yeah -- Frost is telling Weston that the bad guys who are after them are on a mission from a covert element in the CIA, who believe Frost has something embarrassing to reveal.
So who's fooling who? As their options dwindle, Frost and Weston exchange information but we're kept guessing as to who is the one who's telling the truth here. It would be a more interesting movie if Weston was, in fact, one of the suspects in this should-be-tense thriller.
But the script by David Guggenheim (not to be confused with Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame) makes up for its lack of complexity with its relentlessness, a trait that only goes so far before it simply becomes exhausting. Reynolds' Weston spends the entire film with alternating looks of bewilderment and resolve on his face; he's meant to be the idealist who discovers just what a close relative to idealism that cynicism can be, especially when trying to make the end justify the means. And this is definitely another film in which idealism about the ethics and standards of our national intelligence services takes a drubbing.
Still, he and Washington have an abrasiveness that's involving. Washington is like the aging wolf who knows all the tricks and goes easy on the cub who's still finding his balance.
Together, Washington and Reynolds make a watchable team -- and make the occasionally exciting Safe House more watchable than it deserves to be.
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