Safe House Experiences Blowback

Bad intel (and poor cinematography) flings this cinematic grenade back towards its epigonic producers

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Washington looks back menacingly at this poor decision.

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



  1. I loved the movie!  Action and adventure, plus Ryan Reynolds is no longer just a Pretty Boy!

  2. Zenon54 says:

    this was terrible did you watch the movie with your eyes closed you jerkoff

  3. Frannie says:

    It was predictable, but excellent performances from the lead actors saved the day. 

  4. Jackie Weston77 says:

    Wow!! What a scathing review. How you can watch any movie and enjoy it is beyond me. I kind of feel sorry for you that you are THAT cynical. I thought the movie was fantastic, the performances were even better!

    1. Pauljoneslwc says:

      I totally agree. This Reed fellow is just a low character. Sheesh, just say you didn’t like it.

  5. Juancho65 says:

    “Artist, fuck those who work and do not respect the serious professional. Now you go to smoke a cigar, scoundrel. 

  6. Juancho65 says:

    you watch the movie with your eyes closed you jerkoff

  7. Guest says:

    The movie wasn’t that terrible.

  8. Tb says:

    Well said. This film made me carsick.

  9. Kyubi41581 says:

    Couldn’t agree more…I suspected a blending of different styles, which was a good approach but the execution was just miserable with such a good cast.

  10. Kenny says:

    Infinitely better version of the “CIA is evil” type: 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR

  11. P.Jones says:

    What a trashy and low critique. This guy talks about how Washington “trashes” his reputation.
    Being critical as a profession is a joke. Really? Professional Opinion of what you like??
    And if a person doesn’t enjoy what he/she likes, we (the public) must suffer your insults.

    My definition of a critic: a person who Can’t Do, Won’t Try To Do, Yet Judges Those Who Do, Do.
    In other words, he’s the Three Hundred Forty Lb. guy sitting on the couch watching an NBA game, screaming at a player for a missed pass or shot, calling him a “Sorry” player.
    But the fact is He Can’t get his fat rear on the court, won’t even try, yet he has so much to say.

    Rex Reed: What a joke. He even rips into the director….”naive” he calls him. Reed’s only talent is to be creatively insulting. Is that a talent? Apparently. He couldn’t direct anything….or could he? How are his acting skills? Oh I suppose he is the indispensable factor of our entertainment we can’t do without. NOT.
    Well my little tirade is over. I just despise hateful people spewing hateful words, especially under the guise of a fake name, and professional license. Coward.

  12. RichardReeseLaird says:

    I’m a movie fan, but I’ve never listened to critics- I just go to the movies, sometimes twice a week- and hope for the best. Over the past 8 years or so, I’ve noticed an ever-diminishing return on my investment- so it was time to find some critics who could save me some time and money. I’ve spent a year watching movies, and then comparing them to Rex and Peter Travers’ reviews. In my opinion, they are among the top five reviewers in the legitimate press, with Rex being my new go-to favorite. I recommend him to everyone, and I am shocked that I haven’t discovered his services until now (I’m 45 years old, for cryin’ out loud!).
    Rex is a fine example of what true criticism is all about- an artist’s eye with an author’s wit, and an essayist’s intellect. I don’t always agree with his opinion, but his excellent reviews tell me exactly what I need to know enroute to the cinema, every single time!
    Good job, Mr. Reed, and may you live a thousand years!