Film review: Safe House

For his debut film in English, Daniel Espinosa pulls off a great looking action thriller which is sadly let down by a script that falls apart towards the end, finds Alistair Harkness

APPEARANCES can be deceptive in a spy movie, and so it proves with Safe House: a film that looks much better than it is and boasts performances more intensely realised than the story they’re serving ultimately deserves. Still, better that than being just another lazily thrown-together Bourne rip-off or overblown Mission: Impossible movie. The plot beats may eventually prove wearyingly familiar as this tale of rogue CIA agents unravels over 110 minutes, but for its first two-thirds there’s a visceral intensity and seriousness of purpose to the action that makes it easier to forgive the film’s frustrating inability to build to any kind of true complexity or fully engage on a gut-punching level.

Not that there isn’t plenty of gut punching on display (or shootings, stabbings and neck breakings). As Tobin Frost, a suspected traitor, Denzel Washington is certainly handy with his fists. He may be 57, but Safe House proves Washington is still a very credible action star. Carrying himself with the vigour of a man 20 years his junior (not for nothing do they call him “the black Dorian Gray”), he takes out various nefarious guys in ruthlessly proficient fashion. The film calls on him to do this often, but it also gives him just enough space to unleash his usual acting fireworks after the plot kicks in.

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This happens swiftly with an impressively and economically orchestrated opening salvo that sees Frost, a former CIA “wet ops” agent, voluntarily walking into the American embassy in Cape Town and giving himself up after nine years on the run. Nervous about his motives, the higher-ups at the Agency’s HQ in Langley, Virginia (among them Sam Shepherd, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga) move him for debriefing to a nearby safe house and into the charge of an untested, but desperate-to-prove himself agent called Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, raising his game admirably). There we learn that Frost is an expert manipulator of “human assets” and when the security of the safe house is breached, he goes to work on Weston, planting seeds of doubt in his mind about the virtue of his employers as Weston attempts to get Frost to a new, secure location while negotiating tyre-screeching car chases and hails of gunfire.

The film’s up-and-coming Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (making his big-budget English-language debut) handles such action well, delivering coherent chaos that never loses track of the characters amid all the rapid cutting and bleached-out cinematography (the film is certainly something to look at). Despite all of these positives, however, Safe House is neither as memorable nor as satisfying as it should be. Its final act twists are too generic and the drawn-out and naïve coda betrays the high-octane, downbeat mood the film seems to be going for in its earlier stages. They’re functions of a script (and doubtless studio notes) that lacks the sophistication of Spinosa’s clear abilities as a visual storyteller. That’s too bad, but the fact that he’s able to make something out it for so long suggests he’ll be a name to watch in the future.

Safe House (15)

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson Rating: ***

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