Denzel Washington is one of a rare breed in Hollywood. He's an Academy Award-winning actor who has shown that regardless of the role he's in, he is truly an actor. On the other side, he's also a movie star, a true movie star. There aren't many actors/actresses around who have the cache that Washington does. Oh, he's in a new movie? Sign me up. It doesn't hurt that with 2012's Safe House, it's also a good movie.
Having been stationed in Cape Town, South Africa for 12 months, CIA agent Matthew Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is at the end of his rope. His lone task is to care for and watch over a CIA safe house, one that in his year on duty has seen absolutely zero visitors. That is, until now. One day, a CIA extract team (led by Robert Patrick) arrives at the safe house with a prisoner, Tobin Frost (Washington), a rogue agent suspected of selling intelligence secrets to the highest bidder. Before the interrogation can begin though, the safe house is attacked with Tobin as the target. Weston takes him out and finds himself on the run, needing to hide long enough until help can arrive. What isn't Tobin telling him though? And how did the attackers know the time and place to attack? Someone most definitely wants Tobin dead, and Weston may be the collateral damage.
An espionage thriller set in South Africa with Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, and a crew of more than reliable actors in supporting roles? Oh, count me in. From director Daniel Espinosa, Safe House doesn't break new ground in the genre. There is a familiarity with the story and characters, but not that overdone feel of having seen everything done before and done to death. With its washed out colors and quick editing, it has the look and feel of a Tony Scott flick crossed with a Jason Bourne movie. It isn't like those movies, just similar. Espinosa handles the twisting, fast-moving story very professionally. As a viewer, you're always aware the revelations are coming (somewhat predictably), but the enjoyment comes from the ride along the way. The action is impressive, but there's not too much. The twists make sense and fit logically into the story. And the characters? Stock characters from the spy/espionage genre, but good ones at that.
Much of the appeal from Safe House will no doubt come from Denzel Washington as spy come in from the cold Tobin Frost. Washington isn't the type of actor who's in 9 or 10 movies a year, picking and choosing his roles more carefully. When they come along, you've got to enjoy and appreciate them. When he's on-screen, Washington is effortlessly cool, making him an ideal choice to play a possibly rogue agent looking to come in. Tobin is a master manipulator, highly intelligent, very capable of handling himself, and ready and willing to use a wide network of associates and contacts to help his cause. His motivations are kept in the dark to a point -- left in the dark -- but it's clear he's fed up with living a hidden life. He's the one who sets the action in motion, and when it starts, it never slows down. There are very few must-see actors, but Washington is one of them. The actor and character leave you wanting more.
As his counter, Ryan Reynolds shows again why he's one of the rising stars in Hollywood. We meet him in the beginning; an inexperienced agent looking for actual field work, wasting away in a pointless job. He keeps secrets about his job from his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), hoping to get reassignment somewhere. As he's thrust into the world he's only dreamed of up to this point, we see a transformation, a young agent learning in a do-or-die situation. His comedic abilities as an actor have never been in question, but with parts like this and 2006's Smokin' Aces, Reynolds shows he is very capable of being an action star. Let's not talk about Green Lantern which looked like all sorts of awful. Most importantly though, Reynolds isn't overshadowed by Washington. Their scenes together keep things flowing when the bullets aren't flying. Tobin is playing Weston to a point so can the inexperienced agent figure it out and fight back?
Who else to look for? Washington is the drawing card, but there's no drop-off between him and the rest of the cast. Back in Langley at CIA headquarters, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga play CIA supervisors trying to piece everything together. What exactly is going on in South Africa, and who's on who's side? Ruben Blades makes a quick appearance as Carlos, an old associate of Tobin's who helps him out as he tries to get out of South Africa. Patrick helps legitimize the small part as Keifer, the leader of the CIA extract team, with Liam Cunningham briefly appearing as an MI6 link to Tobin. Two other worthwhile parts include Vargas (Fares Fares), the killer tasked with killing Frost and Weston, and Keller (Joel Kinnaman), another safe house operative looking for any sort of excitement.
With a 115-minute long movie, director Espinosa keeps things flowing and never really lets up in the action department. Expansive, loud shootouts, harrowing car chases through Cape Town's crowded streets, and knock down, brutal hand-to-hand fights pepper the story throughout. The editing is lightning-paced, but you're always able to keep up and see what's going on. Thankfully, the brakes were tapped before 'Safe' reached Bourne-editing territory. The shaky camera never goes too far, but you do feel like you're there with the action. South Africa is an exotic, different location for the thriller as well, not the typical backdrop for an espionage story. A classic? No, but it's an above average flick with its fair share of unique qualities.
Safe House <---trailer (2012): ***/****