It’s that time of year again, so here’s the latest in what seems to be a booming subgenre of medium-budget Denzel Washington programmers, during which the heroically indifferent superstar schools an up-and-coming actor on the real meaning of star wattage while sleepwalking his way through genre kicks so tired nobody can be bothered to pay much attention.
Directed by (I’m guessing) the only Swede named Daniel Espinosa, Safe House tries to make a virtue of its generic qualities, so deliberately obscuring crucial plot information for such a vast majority of the running time that we spend most of the picture wondering why everybody keeps shooting each other in the head.
Denzel stars as legendary rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost—a heck of a handle that the movie keeps repeating in hushed tones, stupidly proud of itself. After a cryptic bout of mayhem, he surrenders into the custody of a South African consulate, eventually landing in an agency safe house—hence the title—minded by newbie Ryan Reynolds.
After his disastrous year or so of would-be star-making blockbuster misfires, it’s easy to feel sorry for Reynolds, glimpsed here removing his shirt for no apparent reason while huffing and puffing on emotive overdrive, unable to arrive anywhere near Washington’s lackadaisical charisma. Boasting that old He Got Game fro with a bit of a Cornel West topspin, Denzel can barely be bothered to pay attention—even while being waterboarded.
Meanwhile, a Washington bureau full of overqualified character actors in obvious need of mortgage payments bellow exposition in a high-tech war room. Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga sift their way through the usual cryptic jargon, trying in vain to eke out morsels of characterization.
Safe House plays its cards close to the vest, so hell-bent on preserving its “big twist” that the movie never allows us any point of entry in the first place. A shame, as the third act is so much better than the preceding two, adopting an interestingly mournful cynicism and some shocking, close-quarters bloodletting.
Too bad Espinosa shoots everything in jittery hand-held closeups and keeps a smudgy desaturated filter on the lens. It looks like a Tony Scott film with training wheels.