Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House really wants to be a classy spy thriller in the vein of the Bourne films, and echoing the artistic nature of Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener (2005). Instead, the result is more warmed-over Tony Scott (right down to the use of Denzel Washington), yet somehow more frustrating and dull—and every bit as terrible as that might sound.
Safe House also serves as a primer for how not to make an interesting action picture. It starts with an overly serious tone, and then wallows in it’s own idea of realism. In execution, this means the photography is grainy and the color washed out in faux-Tony Scott LSD-chrome, while all the car chases, shoot-outs and fight scenes are shot with handheld cameras and in über-close-up. The quick cuts and the shaky-cam aesthetic make the movie’s action nigh indecipherable at times. You can’t tell what the hell is going on, but Espinosa is out to prove that, whatever it is, it’s damned exciting. (I’ve seen Bigfoot footage that was more dramatically satisfying.) What’s so infuriating about these stylistic choices is that they add nothing. It was obnoxiously novel when Paul Greengrass was giving everyone motion sickness years ago with his entries in the Bourne series, but it was old hat by the time Christopher Nolan employed it in his Batman films. Now—especially with the coherency of recent action flicks like the last Mission: Impossible and Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2012)—it comes across as lazy and tiresome.
The film follows young CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who is assigned to guard a safe house in South Africa. It isn’t long before one of America’s greatest traitors—a former agent with the goofy name of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington)—is arrested, and placed in custody on Weston’s watch. Soon, however, they’re attacked, and so Weston and Frost must go on the run. Weston wants to follow protocol and bring Frost in to the proper authorities, while Frost, of course, wants to escape custody. Both, however, want to find out who is in charge of the gunmen after the both of them. Fisticuffs and gunfights ensue, with every twist and turn in the plot being telegraphed as far back as the opening scenes.
Most of the film is built around Ryan Reynolds’ performance, which is asking a lot from the man who spent most of 2011 stuck between the Green Lantern and being cast as the poor man’s Ryan Gosling. Yet Reynolds playing his role with his utmost sincerity is somehow worse than his usual wise-cracking persona. His co-star gets a nice, smarmy anti-hero role that’s textbook Denzel, but he’s greatly underused in a movie that wants his performance to be the selling point. The supporting actors are hardly short on talent—Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard—but they’re given roles they could play in their sleep. When this mostly wasted talent mixes with a humorless, washed-out visual tone and uninspired directing, the resulting film is better off avoided. Rated R for strong violence and some language.