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.