For what should be a tough, brutal, no-nonsense thriller, Safe House sure serves up a lot of nonsense. While the kinetic, Bourne-like action scenes that comprise the bulk of the film are well-executed – action fans should be plenty satisfied – the plot that surrounds them is often maddening.
This is one of those movies where the big set pieces were conceived first, and then the story written around them to move the action from one place to the other. Only problem: that story lacks internal logic and cohesion, and we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking our way through it when we should be enjoying the small pleasures the film has to offer.
Part of the problem is with the central character and his casting. Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a traitorous ex-CIA operative who acquires some valuable data in the opening scenes of the film that “won’t make [his] former bosses happy”. Before he can sell the data, he’s ambushed by a mercenary squad in Cape Town and turns himself into the US Embassy to escape.
It’s a curious decision. The US are no friends of Frost; he’s taken to a “safe house” tended to by young agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), and promptly interrogated by a team led by Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick), resulting in some startling waterboarding scenes. The safe house isn’t so safe: it’s quickly raided by the mercs, and only Frost and Weston make it out alive.
Here’s the problem: the film is built up as a cat-and-mouse game between Weston and Frost through the streets of South Africa (the CIA can’t get anyone else there in time), but while Weston is built up as the hero, our allegiances clearly lie with Frost.
Despite being labeled a traitor, he hasn’t done anything during the course of the film to lose our sympathy, with the waterboarding scenes further endearing us to him. To compound matters, he’s played by Washington, who we like even when playing an obvious villain (Training Day).
This results in a key question: what are we rooting for? Weston to do his job well and get a promotion? Frost to get away and sell the data? Safe House seems confused in its portrayal of good and evil, but maybe some contrived plotting can help explain the tough questions away.
A good cast tries to move things along, though; back in Langley, CIA Agents played by Sam Shepard, Brendon Gleeson, and Vera Farmiga have the thankless task of trying to make the plot work, sending Weston from downtown Cape Town to a seedy motel, a packed soccer game, a shanty town (of course), and an isolated farmhouse.
They have the resources to plant a GPA device telling Weston where to go, but not, apparently, the ability to give him any real help in dealing with this dangerous criminal.
Then there’s the action: Safe House boils down to one big, long chase sequence throughout South Africa, with car chases, foot chases, gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat, filmed with shaky-cam, quick-cut Bourne stylistics. Director Daniel Espinosa is no Paul Greengrass, but he gets the job done, and we at least have some idea of what is occurring during the action. If only the plot didn’t keep getting in the way.