C+

Safe House

C+

Safe House

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Runtime: 117 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson

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In 1987, Denzel Washington picked up the first of five Oscar nominations—he went on to win two, for Glory and Training Day—playing anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in Cry Freedom. A quarter century later, in Safe House, the ageless Washington (a Safe House document-forger played by Rubén Blades admiringly calls him a black Dorian Gray) returns to South Africa to play another legend. This time, though, it’s a fictional character, and the circumstances are vastly different. Still, Washington brings the full weight of his iconic presence and history to the initially juicy role of a brilliant CIA operative turned traitor whose awed contemporaries speak of him in hushed terms. Like Hannibal Lecter, he’s the kind of titanic force who poses more of a threat handcuffed and tied to a chair than his adversaries do fully armed.

Washington stars as a notorious international rogue who confuses the CIA by willingly turning himself in to the American embassy in South Africa. When Washington survives a bloodbath that leaves many of his CIA captors dead, a surviving young operative played by Ryan Reynolds is in the perilous position of having to transport the wily, manipulative Washington to a safe house in the countryside while being pursued by a mysterious group of heavily armed men. 

Safe House does altogether too good a job establishing Washington as a seemingly unbeatable adversary: He brings so much gravity to his role that Reynolds seems hopelessly overmatched. Reynolds is perfectly acceptable as a CIA upstart in over his head, though he’s far less convincing following his transformation into a standard-issue action hero, equal parts super-spy and overgrown Boy Scout. Thanks largely to Washington’s sly performance and Daniel Espinosa’s taut direction, Safe House gets off to a strong start, but the tension slackens halfway through and never recovers. Safe House devolves into slick mediocrity whenever it attends to the goings-on at CIA headquarters, where clichéd characters and stiff dialogue defeat the slumming likes of Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, and Vera Farmiga, playing yet another tough-but-fair authority figure. When Washington escapes Reynolds’ control, the groaning familiarity of the Langley scenes begin to infect the movie as a whole. For a generic-looking thriller, Safe House gets off to an overachieving start, but by the time it lurches to an overly pat conclusion, it has thoroughly squandered its considerable early promise.

Filed Under: Film

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