Safe House review – stilted spy drama

Safe House doesn’t establish itself in spy genre

Safe House is one of those spy thrillers that isn’t nearly as thrilling, complex or engaging as the filmmakers think it is, resulting in a derivative movie that never reaches the heights of its spy inspiration brethren.

Denzel Washington stars as former CIA operative turned rogue agent Tobin Frost, a former CIA operative, now rogue agent pops back up on the radar after seven years of evading detection and turns himself in to authorities in Cape Town, South Africa.

safe house review - ryan reynolds walking

With few agents in place to secure him until he can be transported back to the U.S., Frost is taken to a little-used safe house solely manned by rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern). Cape Town has been fine for Matt. He gets to enjoy nice scenery, good weather and he’s fallen in love with a beautiful woman, Ana (Nora Arnezeder). But Weston isn’t entirely content, as he longs to join the action and be at the forefront of CIA affairs and desperately seeks an assignment to prove himself to his longtime mentor, Barlow (Brendan Gleeson). Weston finally gets that chance when the safe house is attacked by a group of mercenaries desperate for a secret in Frost’s possession and it’s up to Matt to get Frost to another safe house.


Director Daniel Espinosa (Outside Love) never quite manages to settle on a pace as the film is comprised of a lot of rushing to wait scenes where there’s some scattered action and extended talking scenes. There’s nothing so compelling that will keep you on edge wondering what’s going to happen next. The action scenes are filmed competently — shootouts aren’t heavily-edited, hard to follow disasters — but they’re over and done so quickly, that the film’s momentum continually feels stalled. What could be a tense edge of your seat thriller with the mercenaries thisclose from tracking Frost who is always one step ahead of Weston feels all too matter-of-fact.

safe house review - ryan-reynolds-and-denzel-washington-clash-in-safe-house

I loathe movies that tell you something rather than show you. The characters all consider Frost this untouchable legend who they respect as some sort of Jack Bauer/Ethan Hunt/James Bond hybrid that’s forgotten more than most agents will ever learn. Yet for all his reputation, Frost is never shown as being all that remarkable, especially if a rookie agent can keep up with him.

Whenever Frost gets away from Weston’s custody, somehow Weston is able to track him down using simple logic. Maybe the rest of the CIA just isn’t as smart as our plucky hero? That’s one of the major issues with the script by newcomer David Guggenheim. The characters are as smart or illogical as needed to move the movie along.

This is Guggenheim’s first feature film and his play it safe approach with spy movie conventions is especially disappointing in a post-Jason Bourne trilogy cinematic landscape where there should be that sense that anything can happen. Instead, Guggenheim offers very little that hasn’t been done before better. If a character appears shady, they are. New characters get introduced to get killed. A traitor in the CIA is obvious even if you’re hardly paying attention.

safe house review - denzel washington and ryan reynolds

Frost is the kind of role that Washington can so effortlessly play that it almost seems too easy for him and he doesn’t get to portray Frost with any depth until the last act. This seems like the teaser role of what Washington could do with a competent rogue James Bond-type character that isn’t just a retread of his Oscar-winning Training Day performance.

Reynolds, good or bad, will do whatever his role requires and he handles the unsure, determined do-gooder Weston just fine. It’s a boring, generic role for him though and one that could have used more of the cocksure, coolest guy in the room persona he’s brought in films like Adventureland and Waiting. The cocky, ambitious agent squaring off against the wily veteran a la a CIA version of The Fugitive seems like a much more fun dynamic than the spy movie paint by numbers snooze fest we’re provided instead.

If you’re in the mood for a spy thriller, check out any of the Bourne trilogy or just wait a few weeks for the next installment as Safe House is as cautious a exhilarating spy movie you can get.

Rating: 4 of 10