An ornament to our screen, Denzel Washington is a leading man who has been fearless enough to invest his good-guy image in heels, connivers or drug lords in films such as "Training Day," "Out of Time" or "American Gangster."
In "Safe House," Washington again indulges the power of the dark side, and this time does so with almost no help from the script. For this tale is less interested in having this powerhouse actor explore his character than it is in having him run across rooftops, crash cars and shoot up hallways.
He does all that while bearing up under the name Tobin Frost. You know that must be a fake moniker, and sure enough, he's a spy. Not just any spy, but one of those rogue agents we hear so much about. "He's wanted for espionage on four continents," a CIA clerk reports breathlessly, though without specifying which ones.
Denzel does have some firepower on hand. The supporting cast includes Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Rubén Blades, Sam Shepard _ a good start toward repopulating the world with an acting troupe. With all that talent on hand, though, director Daniel Espinosa takes the chancier route of building on Ryan Reynolds. He's been decent in lighter fare while showing few signs of heavy-duty acting chops.
Surprisingly, Reynolds is more than up to the task of playing Matt Weston, a young CIA apparatchik who believes his career is dying on the vine as the "housekeeper" of a glorified spiderhole in South Africa. He's got lots of surveillance cameras, a full refrigerator, an MP3 player and a ball to bounce off the wall, Steve McQueen style.
Elsewhere in town, Weston also has a glamorous French girlfriend, Ana (Nora Arnezeder), a do-gooder doctor to whom, naturally, he is lying about all aspects of his life. Well, it's a fraudulent living, until the notorious Tobin Frost turns himself in at the local U.S. consulate to escape from unknown gunmen.
Alarms ring back at CIA headquarters in Langley. Files flash on giant screens. Orders are barked. The traitorous Frost must be held in a secure location. Soon, six heavily armed escorts under the direction of Kiefer (Robert Patrick), here looking more like an electrician than a smooth liquid-metal Terminator, bring Frost to Matt's humble high-security abode.
They immediately set about torturing their guest, because that's how we roll. "Khalid Sheik Mohammed held out for 26 seconds," Keifer tells Frost smugly. Yes, but that was on his 183rd waterboarding. Frost coughs a bit, but looks ready to go for that record.
Then, the lights cut. The back-up generator kicks in, but that's also what a larger group of heavily armed men does to the doors. Cut the exposition, cue the explosions.
From that moment, "Safe House" is a chase movie. Matt is trying to bring in Frost, or get him to the next safe house. Frost is trying to escape. And a whole multi-culti group of bad guys, under the control of some unknown mastermind, are trying to do evil things to them both. It's all presented in energetic style, sort of Bourne Lite. Indeed, cinematogapher Oliver Wood and editor Richard Pearson are veterans of that rogue spy series.
Speaking of rogues, back in Langley, there are many, many recriminations, until Farmiga and Gleeson are on a plane to South Africa to join the chase. Matt and Frost have frank and useful discussions, fistfights, gunbattles. "I only kill professionals," Frost sneers while making one escape from his would-be minder.
But the new guy learns fast. Soon, it's Matt who's mowing down hapless bystanders, such as security guards and police who quite understandably try to detain him after seeing him pull a gun on Frost. Matt has got to get his captive back, whatever it takes _ after all, how else will be get promoted?
There are some advantages to this espionage game. Just like bankers don't need to lie awake at night wondering whether they've sold out, spies don't have to lie awake wondering whether they're sold out their friends and families. Matt gains such valuable insights as he bounces around Cape Town and environs with Frost, as leaving bodies behind them like bread crumbs.
Those striking settings provide some of the few original notes in "Safe House," along with the implication that the most murderous of the gunmen on their trail is an Israeli. For, of course, all is not as it seems. There's a villain on the inside. Hard man Frost learned his attitude the hard way, killing innocents for supposed national security.
David Guggenheim's script offers those sorts of minimal surprises. But it also gives Washington a chance reframe his pedestrian lines. Predictably deriding Matt as an innocent and a "flag waver," Denzel ends the line on a rising inflection, as though he were about to say more but suddenly thought better of it.
Those moments almost offset the car crashes and combatants slithering around in blood. But you can safely wait for "Safe House" in the comfort of your home via cable.