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Safe House: Thriller plays it safe with generic plot

2 out of 4 stars


It's hardly classified information that whenever the words "CIA agent" are mentioned in a movie, the modifier "rogue" will be in close proximity.

Such is the case of Safe House, a movie with a double-crossing intelligence plot that's so generic it's an irritating intrusion in a lively chase through the streets and shantytowns of Cape Town, South Africa.

Ryan Reynolds stars as a bored junior CIA agent, Matt Weston, in charge of an unused Cape Town safe house, and hoping to be transferred to Paris with his pretty doctor girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder). One day a chance at glory falls into his lap.

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A former legendary CIA agent, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), believed to have become a turncoat a decade ago, shows up at the U.S. embassy seeking asylum. He ends up in Matt's care, until a team of other CIA agents arrives, takes charge and promptly begins water-boarding the fugitive.

"Is this legal?" asks Matt, which perhaps goes too far in establishing his political naiveté.

While the "interrogation" is going on, another team attacks the house and kills the CIA agents except for Weston, who escapes with Tobin in a car. Over the next couple of days they race, shoot and engage in impressively vicious hand-to-hand battles with their pursuers.

Produced by Washington, the film is directed by Swedish director Daniel Espinosa in a fragmented, speedy style that's a lesser version of the star's favourite director, Tony Scott. Cinematographer Oliver Wood, who shot the first two Bourne films, uses hand-held cameras and lots of zooms, along with a desaturated colour palette. The movie flies by in flurried sequences that cling to the edges of coherence.

The momentum falters sharply whenever the film cuts to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where CIA brass are played by a trio of underemployed stars (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and top chief Sam Shepard) who bark out orders to underlings while convenient computer screens pop up to provide exposition.

We know almost immediately that at least one of the three is a double-crosser, desperate to take out Frost before the agent reveals damaging information. But since we know nothing about the characters beyond their suits and hairdos, it's immaterial who the traitor is.

During occasional breathers from the racing, punching and shooting, Tobin schools Matt in the cynicism of their trade, and reveals that he is carrying a file of information that a lot of people would kill for. The relationship between the jaded pro and the idealistic younger man has obvious resonances of Training Day (2001), with Washington a bit too familiar as the ingratiating, sinister arch- manipulator.

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By contrast, Reynolds's understated performance as a man deeply over his head is refreshing, if not entirely credible. Surely, no one who has watched any espionage movie of the past decade could be quite so naive.

Safe House

  • Directed by Daniel Espinosa
  • Written by David Guggenheim
  • Starring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington
  • Classification: 14A
  • 2 stars
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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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