You would be forgiven for thinking that the Denzel Washington spy thriller Safe House was directed by Tony Scott, seeing as how the two men have worked together five times already, and the grainy, hyper-edited action sequences recall Man on Fire. In fact, it's directed by Daniel Espinosa, who brings a Scott-like feel to the story of an ambitious, low-level CIA field officer named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who ends up guarding Tobin Frost (Washington), a wily former agent wanted by multiple countries for selling state secrets.
As the movie opens, Weston is a young agent who has seen no action in over a year while stationed in a South African CIA safe house, and he is chomping at the bit to show his bosses what he can do. Luckily, the chance to do exactly that materializes when Frost, an infamous rogue agent in possession of a computer file that would embarrass governments around the world, is brought to the safe house for questioning. After a decade off of the grid, the onetime agent has turned himself in to an American consulate in order to avoid being killed by those who would like to get their hands on this sensitive information. When mercenaries break into the safe house and start shooting everyone in sight, Weston makes the decision to escape with Frost, since losing this high-profile traitor would kill his career. Also, it's the proper protocol to follow, and Weston is nothing if not a good guy.
Weston and Frost are being constantly chased during the first half of the movie, and Espinosa manages to make the whiplash editing style work for the first two major action sequences. There's an extended car chase that gives the audience a really good sense of what Weston is experiencing, even though we can't get a handle on the big picture. We don't have a great sense of where the cars are in relation to each other, but when the action moves inside Weston's vehicle, we understand what our hero is trying to accomplish from moment-to-moment as he's driving and fighting with Frost simultaneously.
The breathless opening 45 minutes are a solid example of effective modern action filmmaking, but when the picture slows down for Frost to get a fake passport from an old friend (Ruben Blades) while also sharing a philosophical moment with him, the movie never gets back on its feet. That scene is followed by a chase through a heavily populated South African neighborhood, and here the montage overwhelms any ability to understand exactly what's going on; we just wait for it to end so that we can find out what happened -- and the same holds true for the violent set pieces that close the film.
Washington is in his easygoing-rogue mode here, and it's one of his most appealing personas. He's done variations on this character so many times, but he's one of those rare actors who can be menacing and charismatic in equal measure, so it hasn't grown stale. He's able to sell the idea that Frost is a master at psychology, able to manipulate those around him, and as always, Washington savors getting to emphasize the character's dark side. As for Reynolds, he's better when he has something to do than when he has to emote -- he's more believable in an extended fistfight than he is breaking up with his girlfriend, but that might have as much to do with the writing as with him. The supporting cast, including Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga as higher-ups back at CIA headquarters keeping tabs on Weston, do what they can with secondary roles that haven't been fleshed out much beyond their usefulness to the plot.
It's easy to lump Safe House in with any number of pedestrian Denzel Washington action films from the last few years, but the fact that it's a notch above them for its first half ends up hurting the movie in the long run because it fails to follow through on that promise -- it settles for being merely OK. Safe House is, sadly for Washington, annoyingly safe.