Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds & Vera Farmiga
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: February 2012
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: For the past year, rookie CIA agent Matt Weston has been eager to prove himself while cooling his heels at an inactive South African post. He gets the chance when Tobin Frost, a turncoat operative, is brought to Weston’s safe house for debriefing. But soon after Frost’s arrival, mercenaries attack, and Weston and Frost barely escape with their lives. The two men must join forces and try to stay alive long enough to figure out who wants them dead.
Hot on the heels of his often-mocked turn as Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, and his equally divisive first attempt as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Safe House gives Ryan Reynolds the opportunity to revisit his grittier side, as seen in the claustrophobic thriller, Buried. Nowadays synonymous with snark, Reynolds is also capable of high drama and this tense conspiracy spy thriller is a brilliant example of him in a more serious action role. Paired up with the practically perfect Denzel Washington, the two engage upon a cat-and-mouse game against each other and the deadly assassin’s determined to track them down. Tense and filled with twists and turns, Safe House demands the viewer’s full attention from the outset and never rests until the credits roll.
Reynolds plays earnest CIA officer Matt Weston, eager to prove himself after an extended role looking after a barely-used safe house in South Africa. Once Washington’s traitorous Tobin Frost is brought into his care, the pair are thrust into a deadly conspiracy that threatens to kill them both. The juxtaposition of youth and wisdom stands out between the two actors who are on opposite sides of the law; Frost is world-weary and envies Weston’s naivety, but will not surrender himself to the younger officer. As a result, the two are continually at odds with one another whilst attempting to avoid the kill team that relentlessly hunts them down. This complicated situation of shifting loyalties and unpredictability fuels the excitement of the movie, particularly in a scene where Washington attempts to escape Reynolds during a soccer match. It’s a brilliant dynamic and reminds me of similar films like Midnight Run, 16 Blocks, or to a lesser extent, The Bounty Hunter.
Safe House does not skimp on the action in any way with some thrilling car chases, rooftop runs and brutal gunfights. There’s a stark casualness to the violence on display with people shot suddenly and ‘double-tapped’ for efficiency – there is a scene towards the end of the film where Washington shoots someone and you can see the resigned nature of the act. He barely lifts his firearm up to aim at the victim and just plugs him as he walks away – it’s a lovely bit of subtle acting, showing how desensitised to violence Frost has become. Washington does a tremendous job inhabiting the character and makes him extremely likeable despite his villainous reputation. He is one of the best action hero actors out there, almost typecast nowadays for bringing tortured world-weary killers to life. The scenes where he and Reynolds are onscreen together are the most engaging and the quieter moments that focus on their complicated relationship is where the film really stands out.
The supporting cast do a brilliant job too, especially Fares Fares who plays the lead pursuer Vargas. He is one of those character actors who looks perfect for the role of hired killer, and no doubt appears in the background of many other films in similar roles. He does a great job as the recognisable face of the kill team chasing after Frost, managing to evoke a sense of menace whenever he appears on-screen. Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga appear as senior members of the CIA trying to maintain control of the escalating situation, but serve mainly to keep the viewer guessing as to which one of the two is corrupt. The scene where the truth is revealed and one kills the other was slightly obvious, but nonetheless brutal with the unfortunate victim getting the old ‘double tap’ in the head and left on the side of the road.
Whilst enjoyable, Safe House struggles to stand out from the crowd and blurs together amongst the raft of other action thrillers from the early 2010s era. The dynamic between Washington and Reynolds is easily the most striking and memorable aspect of the film, whilst the stunts and scripts feel derivative of other films within the same genre. Director Daniel Espinosa maintains nail-biting tension throughout the film and the threat surrounding Frost and Weston feels suitably omnipotent and dangerous. The setting of South Africa further adds an element of distinction to the film, removing the plot from the typical New York setting, and adding something unfamiliar to proceedings. There’s an inherent rawness to the setting that suits the brutality of the film, and some of the best sequences are the ones that showcase the locale, such as the Cape Town stadium and the attack on the Langa Township.
While it might not be the most memorable film in either leading man’s filmography, Safe House is a solid spy thriller that earns its place in the genre. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting to note that Reynolds attempts a similar film with 2017’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard, this time pairing with Samuel L. Jackson in the older antagonistic role and making more use of his sardonic humour in the wake of his second attempt as Deadpool. Ultimately, I prefer Safe House’s straight-laced approach and appreciate Reynolds’ more dramatic performance. Definitely worth watching for the chemistry between the two leads, Safe House is an uncompromising thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.