Movie Review: SAFE HOUSE Is A Bleak House

A tedious, familiar movie that proves Denzel Washington isn't above phoning it in.

Imagine Three Days of the Condor, roughed up and slapped around by The Bourne Identity. You’re beginning to understand Safe House, the largely tedious and entirely uninspired new Denzel Washington film. A half-assed play at a paranoid thriller, Safe House is so generic that the only surprises it offers come when the film doesn’t bother to hit the familiar notes. Not that it is hitting another note - just simply that it can’t be bothered to hit a note at all.

There are small pleasures to be found in the film. The South African setting is almost used well. And Ryan Reynolds, Washington’s co-star, is put through a number of painful wringers. Ruben Blades makes an exceptionally rare appearance, and there are a couple of wonderful character actors dotted throughout - Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick especially. But these things are not enough, and Safe House ends up being such a chore to sit through that I writhed in my seat for half the film.

Ryan Reynolds plays the greenest, lamest CIA agent in history. His detail is holding down a Cape Town safe house on the off chance anyone should ever need to use it. Denzel Washington is Tobin Frost (what a name), a rogue agent who has been on the run for nine years. He ends up captured and interrogated in Reynolds’ safe house - the first action seen there in our young hero’s entire posting. But a bunch of bad guys break in and kill all the real CIA agents, leaving rookie Reynolds on the run with the ultimate turncoat spy.

You’d think there would be a movie in there, but there simply isn’t. Reynolds is insufferable as a complete waste of CIA training. I found myself actively rooting against this barely competent buffoon; what made Redford’s character in Three Days of the Condor work was that he was an analyst, not a field agent, so his utter inexperience and inability made sense. Reynolds, all puppy dog eyes, acts like a he’s never fired a gun in his life.

Yesterday I bemoaned the state of Denzel Washington’s career, but conceded that he never phones it in. Surprise! I’ve been proven wrong. The great actor walks through this role, barely present. His last scene has some interesting acting choices, but every other moment in the film feels like he’s sampling past performances. His character is supposed to be a legendary badass and manipulator, but Denzel plays him as slightly less slick than Larry Dallas from Three’s Company. It’s a bafflingly inert performance.

These two dead on arrival characters bounce around within David Guggenheim’s limp script. It’s the kind of movie that occasionally throws its hands up in the air and tosses a gunfight into the proceedings because it has no idea what to do next. Those gunfights are shot in the tired shaky style of the 00s, almost like the aftershocks of The Bourne Supremacy are just now hitting the cameraman.

The shaking is almost welcome because it obscures the film's ugly visual quality. Most shots are put through horrible color filters that appear to be ‘Tidy Bowl’ and ‘Golden Shower.’ These filters only add to the mid-00s deja vu of the whole enterprise, directed by Daniel Espinosa. I have heard good things about Espinosa’s first film, Snabba Cash, but there’s no personality on display in Safe House. The whole thing seems to have been excavated from a particularly large turd that Tony Scott dropped in about 2006. The film has the muted, unimaginative quality of a project crushed by studio and producer interference.

I don’t know that there’s a moment in Safe House that’s particularly memorable. Maybe when Sam Shepard decides the best thing to have CIA officers Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson do during a time sensitive operation is fly from DC to South Africa. That’s about a 15 hour flight. Everything else in Safe House is rote, recycled from a dozen other movies, offering no new thrills or ideas.

By the end of the movie Ryan Reynolds is shocked to learn that there is corruption in the CIA, and you’re just ready to kick him in his soft, soft head. We’ve been waiting for you to catch up for the last 90 minutes, numbskull. Safe House will have you on the edge of your seat - so you can spring out of it the second the credits roll.