There are good moments in Safe House, but none that spy fans haven’t seen at least a dozen times before. In a genre as repetitive as the spy genre is (let's be honest), filmmakers generally have two routes to go. Either they can present something original amidst the expected tropes (even This Means War at least offers a fresh twist, even if it fails to pull it off), or they can follow the paint-by-numbers pattern established by the Bond movies and Hitchcock and tweaked over the years by the likes of Robert Ludlum and Paul Greengrass—and do it so well that nobody cares. (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a perfect example of the latter sort of success.) Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim, unfortunately, do neither. They merely recycle the familiar and do it in a generally inferior fashion to what we’ve seen before. Perhaps I’m more critical because I (like most readers of this blog, I'd hazard) have seen more spy movies than the average moviegoer, but then again that means (as regular readers are well aware) that I have an extremely high threshold for spy clichés. If you’ve got safe houses and moles and car chases and shootouts, I’m really not that difficult to please.
One night, after a day spent complaining about this dead-end job to his superior in Langley (Brenden Gleeson) and his girlfriend in Johannesburg (Nora Arnezeder, to whom he must express his frustrations couched in the terms of his cover profession, as she doesn’t know he’s a spy), Matt’s dull routine is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a CIA black ops team (led by Robert Patrick, of course) transporting a high-value prisoner: former star agent gone rogue Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington). Matt doesn’t really know much about Tobin Frost (you can tell how proud Guggenheim is of that name by how many times it’s spoken aloud) other than that he’s a legend and that the Agency wants him brought in, but Matt’s clearly not too comfortable about watching Frost waterboarded by Robert Patrick’s team. Washington shakes off the waterboarding as cavalierly as Daniel Craig resists Le Chiffre’s unbearable torture in Casino Royale. He has fun with this role, and consequently he’s fun to watch. Washington acts circles around not only Reynolds, but even heavy-hitting supporting players like Gleeson, Liam Cunningham (as an MI6 operative) and Vera Farmiga (as Gleeson’s colleague). Only Sam Shepherd (Fair Game) manages to match him as the crusty CIA director, but sadly the two never share a scene together.
It will surprise precisely no one who’s ever seen a spy movie or a Denzel Washington movie before that it turns out that, unlike Lecter, Frost is not the big bad guy he’s built up to be, but a misunderstood idealist forced to flee the Agency when he stumbled on a truth he wasn’t meant to know. The true villain of the piece is telegraphed so loudly that astute viewers will probably spot him or her not only from the first act but from the trailer. Meanwhile, with his own true nature revealed, Washington takes a moment to shave off his bad guy beard and trim his afro, transforming into the clean-cut (and much younger-looking) Denzel we all know and love.
Green Zone and Ghost Protocol, respectively, but not very well thought out. Given too much thought, the film appears to endorse Wikileaks-style dissemination of government secrets little with care given to the consequences of releasing such information and presumably endangering American agents, but I don’t think it’s intended to be given that amount of thought. And, honestly, as long as you don't think too much, you’ll probably find enough to enjoy in Safe House to make it worth a rental one day. Washington’s performance alone ensures that. Just don’t go into it expecting the Bourne-level thrills promised by the poster.