by Ryan Hill
Take an exotic locale, the shady dealings of a rogue spy, frenetic fights and car chases, mix in Matt Damon and voila! You have the formula for the classic “Bourne” trilogy. Substitute Damon with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, however, and that formula almost completely breaks down into the mess of a film that is “Safe House.”
Matt Weston (Reynolds) is the housekeeper for a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s bored out of his mind due to lack of houseguests, throwing a tennis ball against the wall to pass the time, because books must not be allowed in safe houses. The monotony of his slow days at work comes to a halt when Tobin Frost (Washington) is brought in for questioning.
A man of superior intellect, Frost used to be a CIA agent before breaking bad. It’s not long before a group of nameless bad guys toting machine guns break into the safe house, trying to kill Frost. Weston, knowing Frost is his responsibility no matter what, takes the detainee on the lam to get him safely out of Cape Town and on the way to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va.
Washington – kind of, sort of, but not really playing a villain – relishes the chance to play characters that think they’re one step ahead of everyone, like he’s a kid who can’t wait to tell somebody his secret. Frost has moments of that glee that earned Washington an Oscar for “Training Day,” but they’re too few and far between. Reynolds, whose boyish voice makes him perfect to play a wet-behind-the-ears CIA agent, is up to the task of going head-to-head with Washington, but the film is too concerned with silly subplots and action sequences to let the cat-and-mouse game between the two play out.
It’s impossible not to think of how inferior “Safe House” is to the “Bourne” movies, which it painfully tries to emulate. Instead of the CIA and the bad guys being after Bourne, they’re all after Washington’s Frost, who’s either a good guy gone rogue or someone who just went bad after a series of morally ambiguous decisions. “Safe House” doesn’t concern itself with the resolution of such issues, as there are too many nameless baddies to shoot.
Daniel Espinosa, making his American directorial debut, shoots the fight scenes with the same wild hand-held movements found in Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne” sequels, and the car chases have the same whiplash feel to them. “Safe House” even tries to throw in a few twists and turns, but the problem is each one can be predicted within the first 20 minutes of the film.
“Safe House” could have been a great battle of wits between a seasoned vet like Washington and Reynolds, who is still relatively a new star on the scene. Instead, the film is passable, throwaway entertainment that brings nothing new to the table. The “Bourne” films were exciting because they flew by the seat of their pants. Nobody knew what would happen next, and anyone familiar with the production history of those films knows that even included the filmmakers. “Safe House” knows exactly where it’s going, but keeps getting sidetracked by the idea of generic action sequences that have been seen too many times before to be anything more than a poor man’s “Bourne.”
Grade: 2 out of 4
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence -throughout and some language
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patrick, Vera Farmiga
Studio: Universal Pictures