Safe House (2012)

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 02/11/12 10:07:44

"3:10 to Johannesburg"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“That’s Tobin Frost,” says one character, then another, then Rachel McAdams as the amnesiac in the next auditorium over upon getting a glimpse of Denzel Washington’s latest certified badass. You suspect that screenwriter David Guggenheim might have given himself a modest pat on the back when he cracked that one, the kind of name that screams “rogue agent who is both off the grid and somehow known to all.”

But that’s beside the point. What matters is that Tobin has popped up in South Africa with mercenaries on his tail. Having turned himself in to the American consulate in Johannesburg after nine years as a turncoat abroad, he sets off all sorts of alarms for the suits at Langley and is quickly shuffled off to the nearest safe house, manned only by rookie Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). You can guess what he says upon seeing the man beneath the hood in his own interrogation room.

Those mercenaries are stubborn, though, breaking down the door and effectively eliminating every agent more experienced than Weston – which is to say, every other agent – and so the young buck finds himself tasked with the transport and protection of Frost while his superiors Stateside (personified by Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga) determine their best course of action.

Take your pick of whichever 3:10 to Yuma you prefer, filter it through the Bourne movies, and you’re left with Safe House, a mid-level time-killer that’s marginally more effective than last month’s Contraband, though defined by the same modest-yet-entertaining ambition. In the hands of director Daniel Espinosa, it’s got a pretty good car chase, a pretty good hand-to-hand fight, a pretty good foot chase, two pretty good leads and twists that Ray Charles would see coming from the concession stand.

The washed-out visual milieu and presence of good old Denzel could easily make one think that this is an under-the-radar Tony Scott effort, but the comparisons to Paul Greengrass’ spy sequels are built right into the crew – director of photography Oliver Wood shot all three of those films, while editor Richard Pearson cut middle chapter Supremacy, Greengrass’ own United 93 and Quantum of Solace, that most recent and most stubbornly hectic of Bond efforts. I say all of that to say this: the action beats strewn throughout Safe House often manage to mercifully fall on this side of impossible to comprehend, though the resemblance to Matt Damon’s globe-trotting butt-kicking (not to mention his scorn for corruption in the halls of power) is never too far off.

Nothing new arises out of seeing Frost prove to Weston how evil he’s not and how good the government isn’t, nor does the film get any good mileage out of shots of Langley lackeys shouting out exactly what we and others can clearly see for ourselves on any given screen. Guggenheim’s B-plot is basically a bust, bogging matters down with perfunctory scenes of Farmiga and Gleeson being briefed on the tarmac about everything we’ve already seen unfold. Fortunately, the central pairing does work, with the old pro (both on screen and off) acting strictly, sometimes ruthlessly professional while the newbie refuses to let him run entirely amok. A better film would make this something of a race-reversed Collateral, as Reynolds’ character comes to grips with Washington’s harsh sense of protocol.

As it stands now, the morally thorny proceedings are ultimately a bit too tidy to prove more exciting beyond the surface-level pleasures of its recurring pursuits, but as an action vehicle, it generally keeps moving with purpose and precision, no matter how much the camera jostles around. At the risk of entirely damning with faint praise at this point, 'Safe House' is like a cheap sirloin: not the leanest slab of meat, but it’ll do the trick. Just remind me to ask you guys around this time next year if you can still tell me who the hell Tobin Frost is.

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