Safe House

A friend of mine described “Safe House” on Twitter as “a normal action movie, but with Denzel!” That’s accurate and succinct, and it tells you everything you need to know. Were it not for my puritan work ethic I would just steal that line and end this review now.

Mr. Washington plays Tobin Frost, a CIA agent who went rogue nine years ago and has allegedly been selling secrets all over the world ever since. He causes a stir when he walks into the U.S. consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, and turns himself in — not out of remorse for his crimes, mind you, but to get away from the bad guys who are after something he has.

Now in custody, he’s taken to a nearby CIA safe house staffed by an eager young field agent named Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Weston has been posted in Cape Town for a year now, frustrated by the lack of career advancement and bored by the dearth of detainees and witnesses needing to be kept in his safe house.

Despite Weston’s diligence and professionalism, however, the safe house is breached, some members of the CIA team are killed, and Weston and Frost are on the run. Back in Langley, CIA top dog Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and Weston’s mentor, Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), debate whether Weston has gone rogue with Frost or whether he’s trying to re-apprehend him.

If none of this sounds very remarkable, that’s because it isn’t. Pursued by the mysterious bad guys and now by the CIA and local Cape Town law enforcement, Weston and Frost are dragged into gunfights, fistfights, and car chases, all rendered generically and spruced up with too much shaky-cam — that old fallback for directors (Daniel Espinosa in this case) who want to disguise the fact that we’re just watching the same old action sequences we’ve seen a hundred times before.

But like my buddy said, there is Denzel. He’s got that indefinable movie-star charisma that makes him compelling in just about any role, more so when he’s playing someone who is not necessarily operating within the confines of the law. Reynolds is in serious mode here, his typical snarky demeanor dialed down considerably. He’s basically playing straight man to an off-the-wall Washington, an unusual arrangement that doesn’t pay off as well as it should have because of the film’s overall inertness.

C (1 hr., 55 min.; R, fair amount of violence, some profanity, fleeting partial nudity.)