No matter how bad or forgettable the movie is, Denzel Washington can usually make the best of his role. He holds your attention every time he shows up, with his good looks and his crisp way of articulating his dialogue, which makes even the bad lines sound great.
In Daniel Espinosa’s “Safe House,” Washington plays Tobin Frost, a dangerous rogue CIA agent who has been exposing highly classified information about the Agency. After escaping from some unknown attackers he turns himself in to the CIA and is taken to a Safe House. Even though the basics are different, this isn’t foreign territory for Washington. He’s wise, manipulative, charismatic and fearless. When CIA agents try to force information out of him by putting a rag over his face and pouring water on it he never lets up and when they stop he’s ready to go again. He isn’t always in control (although much of the time he is) but he knows how to get himself out of a bad situation, by being patient and crafty and, ultimately, cold blooded.
In the movie he functions as a sort of mentor to young, naïve Safe House guard Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). After the same attackers who initially hunted Tobin breach the safe house, Matt has to escort Tobin through the bustling streets of South Africa to another safe location. Continuously Tobin gets into Matt’s head, trying to convince him that he isn’t in a good situation, and warning him of the action movie clichés that lie ahead (“when they say ‘we’ll take it from here’ that’s when you’re screwed”). But Matt is determined to stay with him despite the mind games.
By comparison Reynolds isn’t as good as Washington (obviously) but it actually goes with the character. Matt is a young, inexperienced agent who wants to do some exciting CIA stuff, he never says it but I assume he means gun fights and car chases. But with Frost he gets what he asks for and then some. Matt’s main motivation in the film is to prove himself worthy and do what’s right. As a character he’s trying to match Tobin beat for beat, just like he’s trying to do as an actor.
As for the rest of the picture, it’s hit and miss. It has an edgy, hard-boiled crime fiction look to it, and it maintains that tone throughout the entire movie. As in a lot of action movies these days, Espinosa is fond of using hand held cameras, especially in the action scenes that take place in crowded areas.
On the other hand the cat and mouse structure of the plot gets old after a while and more often than not the film relies on generic looking shoot outs and car chases for excitement. Also by about the halfway point you know where the story’s going. Frost isn’t as bad a guy as he seems and there’s always a cover-up.
Essentially what “Safe House” comes down to is the relationship between Tobin and Matt and a veteran passing on knowledge to a rookie, and I liked that angle, I just wish Espinosa and writer Scott Stuber could have found a better way to show it instead of going for a rather standard action movie.
Still, Washington’s in it and he makes the movie at least worthwhile. Without him the movie would have been even more forgettable.