While it may be surprising to learn that Tony Scott didn’t direct this film, it nevertheless turns out a non-stop action flick that rarely pauses for thought.
Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds have both had at least two careers on screen. Washington came up through the ranks of character-based performances in Cry Freedom, Malcolm X and Philadelphia, but since his Oscar-winning performance in Training Day he has become an action man, largely under the guidance of director Tony Scott. Similarly, Reynolds was known as a funnyman on TV’s Two Guys, A Girl and A Pizza Place and the Van Wilder: Party Liaison film before turning super hero in Blade II, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern. In the time-honoured tradition of pairing the older action hero with the younger, Safe House matches the unlikely duo for an even more unlikely series of events.
Rookie CIA operative Matt Westin (Ryan Reynolds) is posted to a slow-paced station in South Africa, where he is little more than a “housekeeper” for an Agency safe house in the event of a prisoner (or “guest”) needing CIA attention. When rogue operative Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) comes in from the cold after a decade, he is taken to Westin’s safe house, which is almost immediately set upon by mercenaries seeking out Frost and the vital black market intel he carries. Desperate for an opportunity to prove himself, Westin resolves to bring in Westin himself, by any means necessary.
The cast list alone should make Safe House at least a curiosity for cinemagoers, although being the straightforward action piece that this is, just don’t expect any of them to be on screen for too long. The likes of Sam Shepard (yes, Sam Shepard!), Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga pop up to give weight to the Really Important Exposition that happens back at CIA HQ, although they aren’t really needed for much of the film. This is the Denzel and Ryan show, and it is their battle of personalities that we turn up to see. For the most part, this is a match that is worthy of ringside seats. Reynolds makes up for much of the goofy leading man antics that were partly responsible for running Green Lantern off the rails, and while it is entirely possible that Washington is just taking the cheques, he is believable as the Spy Who Came In From the Cold, only to go on the run again. The chemisty between them is likable enough, with both characters giving just enough for audience allegiances to shift constantly throughout the film.
Safe House wastes no time in making the action the first and foremost thing on our minds, and any plots twists and turns are merely there to provide excuses to turn the heat up to eleven. It becomes obvious fairly early on that there is a rat in the house, but it takes several safe house raids for everybody to catch up to this fact. This is irrelevant, as the action itself is top-notch. From a spectacular couple of chases early in the piece, including a fairly magnificent one with Reynolds behind the wheel, through to the more brutal Bourne-style fist fights, Safe House ticks all the right boxes. Particularly impressive is a rooftop chase at night, and the use of the crowd during the obligatory sport stadium sequence. The finale is brutal, bloody and sticky and while it may all wrap up a little too neatly, any more complexity would take it into a different genre. This is a solid action-thriller piece, and worth watching for the personality play alone.