The trilogy of Jason Bourne films – especially the second, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy – changed the visual language films used to tell an action/adventure story. Tight close-ups and quick cuts within a lean and focused story are now the standard. You also have heroes who are anything but supermen. They bleed, they feel pain, but they also used their abilities to the upmost in pursuit of a goal. When there are car chases, vehicles get wrecked, including the hero’s. It’s a far cry from the over-the-top action in some of the James Bond films, such as when the car he’s driving is sliced in half but still he continues driving it, like you had in A View To A Kill. You can see the Bourne influence in the exceptional Bond-reboot, Casino Royale.
Now Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds have entered this revitalized genre with Safe House, a riveting chase set in South Africa’s Cape Province.
Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a low-level CIA operative assigned to running a safe house located in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a mind-numbing assignment, and Weston desperately wants out. He’d like a posting in Paris so he can follow his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder) who is moving there to pursue her medical career. Weston contacts his mentor in the Agency, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), but Barlow’s response isn’t promising.
Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Washington) surfaces in Cape Town. He’s a former agent who went rogue a decade earlier and is wanted by several countries for espionage. In his CIA days, he was the agency’s premier interrogator and a master manipulator. Frost is in Cape Town to meet a former MI-6 operative, Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham), and purchase a microchip from him. The meeting is blown and Wade is killed. Frost tries to escape his pursuers, but in the end the only way to survive is to walk into the US Consulate, where he’s immediately detained.
Frost’s surfacing sends major shock waves through CIA headquarters. Deputy Director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) orders Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) to get her interrogation team there since they can arrive faster that the team Barlow has in Europe. The team, under the command of David Kiefer (Robert Patrick) brings Frost to Weston’s safe house and waterboards him to loosen him up for the questioning. But almost immediately the safe house is attacked by the mercenaries who tried to get Frost earlier that day. With the interrogation team taken out, Weston escapes, dragging Frost with him.
One aspect of David Guggenheim’s excellent script is that the story doesn’t slip into an Us vs. Them simplicity. Each character has their own agenda that they pursue. Even though Weston has saved Frost from the squad that’s after him, it doesn’t mean that Frost and he are suddenly allies. In that sense, Safe House is a story of Weston earning both the respect of others, as well as self-respect. While this is Guggenheim’s first produced movie script, he writes with assurance and depth.
Director Daniel Espinosa has done a few movies in his native Sweden, but this is his first major Hollywood movie. He utilizes the Cape Town area wonderfully, from the cosmopolitan city to the slum townships on the outskirts to the beautiful Cape countryside. He knows how to pace the action, giving the audience a moment to catch its breath and process what has happened before a new twist puts the characters in peril.
Denzil Washington brings a wonderful menace to the role of Frost. Even when he’s in handcuffs, you know he’s still dangerous. While he’s not the completely amoral detective in Training Day, he’s on the edge, and it’s wonderful watching him walk the tightrope. Ryan Reynolds recovers from the major misstep of last year’s The Green Lantern and delivers a nuanced and assured performance. Weston starts the movie with a pretty high opinion of himself but as the movie progresses he actually grows to become that person.
The rest of the actors match the intensity of the stars. Two beautifully done shorter roles are Ruben Blades as Carlos, a dealer in identities that Frost knows, and Joel Kinnaman (AMC’s The Killing) as Keller, the minder of another safe house.
Or is it safe? This is a movie that lives up to its tag line – No One Is Safe. If you like your action mixed with intelligence, you’ll find it worthwhile checking into this Safe House.