Movies about covert CIA operatives make their own clichés, and in a violent and pointless waste of time and money called Safe House, they come in twos, like double vision. This movie wouldn’t be worth the effort even if it were about something, which it isn’t. Correction: It’s about how Denzel Washington is not above trashing his reputation when the salary works, even if the movie doesn’t.
Ryan Reynolds, who remains as critic-resistant as he is camera-ready, plays Matt Weston, a rookie CIA agent in Cape Town assigned to oversee a top-secret safe house where terrorists, mercenaries and guys with funny accents who haven’t shaved since the Berlin Wall collapsed are held for questioning and, presumably, protected by U.S. law. (In Cape Town? The St. Tropez of South Africa? Where the only people questioned are tourists who lose their room keys?) Anyway, that’s what it says in a screenplay by David Guggenheim that can be described only as what’s left after the dog ate the film-school Screenwriting 101 homework. Anyway, after smashing up half of the city with action-flick monotony, the preppie freshman spy finds himself under orders from headquarters in Langley, Va., to guard a master spy called Tobin Frost (Mr. Washington, in high dudgeon and deep doo-doo), who is suspected of betraying his government in heinous ways too vague to explain. Frost was once a great CIA hero who wrote the book on interrogation protocol before he turned rogue. Now everybody is after him. It takes the film’s entire 1-hour, 55-minute running time before you discover what they want him for and why. Meanwhile, the safe house is invaded by mass murderers Weston believes to be assassins, and he has to flee with his prisoner to save both their lives. Much more confusion lies ahead, when the killers turn out to be CIA agents themselves, but I’m getting one step ahead of a movie that is always one step behind.
With Weston trying to make sense of his orders via long-distance cell phones (they get better reception in Cape Town than in East Hampton) and Frost running, punching, machine-gunning, hand-grenading and destroying half the cars, trucks, buildings and innocent pedestrians on the streets, the movie collapses in a noisy farrago of dizzy editing. The woman at The New York Times raved about the sheer beauty of this film, which has left me stupefied. There is nothing beautiful in any single frame of the stomach-churning camerawork, grainy and shaking around in a series of ugly close-ups. Even the car chases, ratcheted up to an ear-splitting decibel level, are shot in close-ups, robbing the people who like this sort of chaos of the simple pleasure of getting off on the kind of cheap carnage that substitutes for narrative. All of which makes it doubly impossible to figure out what the hell is going on. You can write the plot on the flat side of a bobby pin.
Before the CIA can torture Frost into confessing to treason, his costar, in a dedicated effort to do his job, gain seniority and get a raise, drags his charge to a locker in a packed soccer stadium, where he fires into the crowd and causes a public riot, then escapes through a slum maze of collapsible shacks made of corrugated tin. After the CIA big shots (including Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson in his first film in years in which you can understand his brogue) arrive in South Africa from Langley faster than it takes the red-eye to L.A., they start firing at each other. What is going on here? Suffice it to say that Frost is not the heel Weston thinks he is. Here comes the cliché about secret files proving criminal activity and corruption within the ranks of the CIA. One leak to the press and it could wreck the American people’s blind and unwavering trust in their own government! In the end, with almost every actor in the cast dead, blown to hamburger and six feet under, it’s up to the rookie to save the CIA from a black eye and change the course of history.
Are they kidding? We’ve seen the CIA vilified as a viper’s nest of felons, liars and mad-dog killers who all betray each other in dozens of other movies, all better and more gripping than Safe House. In fact, we’ve seen scores of other safe-house movies, all superior to Safe House. This time the suspect pool is so old it’s hairy. Directed with a maximum of overrehearsed brutality and a minimum of skill by young Swedish newcomer Daniel Espinosa, the movie is so predictable that you figure it out an hour before the actors do. This is a naive director with so little insight you wonder what comic books he’s been reading. Under his punishing camera lens, everyone looks sallow, anemic and terrible, including the usually alluring Vera Farmiga, who has never looked so haggard. Even GQ coverboy Ryan Reynolds has bags under his eyes as big as walnuts.
All of which makes me sad about Denzel Washington’s disillusioning participation. I forgive him if the money was irresistible enough to pay off a mortgage or put his kids through Harvard, but Safe House is total junk, and he is one of the producers. I guess I respect him too much to call him a junk dealer, but when the shoe fits …
Running Time 115 minutes
Written by David Guggenheim
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds and Robert Patrick
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