Another highly conventional, ultimately exhausting studio movie for the highly accomplished Denzel Washington has him in an interesting part as a rogue government (CIA) agent. One that doesn't play out probably as well as it read on the page of David Guggenheim's spec script or with the kind of viscerally compelling, if excessive panache as in one of his pictures with Tony Scott, Man on Fire.
In the action/thriller Safe House, besides the two-time Oscar-winner Washington are Ryan Reynolds (The Change-Up), Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, and Ruben Blades, there is some viable conversation and interplay between Washington's elusive special ops man Tobin Frost and Reynolds' discouraged, idling Matt Weston.
For some it may appear to be a palatable cross between pictures like Training Day (where Washington earned his second trophy as a tough narcotics officer) and Three Days of the Condor (with Reynolds, in way, substituting for the Robert Redford role with not enough complexity) or (by itself) Enemy of the State, a Will Smith vehicle. However, Swedish helmer Daniel Espinoza can't refine the characterizations, plot and dialogue in a vital way in spite of advantageously honing a burnished Cape Town setting (in place of Rio de Janeiro) to occasional gritty effect.
Reynolds (despite second billing) is the lead character as Weston appears in the first and last shot of a movie which waves a wicked wand in the face of skullduggery and messes with the character's idealistic and ethical codes. Early on the storyline provides a little background into Matt and Frost, the latter having turned assets and Intel to splinter cells posing a threat to many of the top brass in the Langley, Va. office over the past decade, the former a "housekeeper" at a remote Cape Town post trying to have the chance to get out of banal existence into a more substantial field operative position.
What appears to be somewhat well-paced and stylish after an intense chase scene where a dangerous spy like Frost has secured a microchip and the titular location where he's sent is under siege by fortune-hungry Nicaraguan assailants settles down for a while into a kind of buddy picture. The tyro in Weston, like Reynolds is to the more seasoned Washington, is coerced into aiding Frost, as the former in a way becomes his protege through an unnerving opportunity.
Some relatively taut set-pieces are set up by Espinoza including one around a soccer stadium where Frost manages to use outside spectators and security as a clever diversion before a police officer is downed in self-defense. Including the climax with car going up in flames, explosive spectacle doesn't entail thoughtful passages especially when it concerns Weston and Frost learning of Fargas who intends to have them eliminated.
Of course, Washington has the most delectable dialogue that lightens things up when they need so, before the mayhem and carnage have another relentless surge. Reynolds has been a part of this sort of thing in the reviled, over-the-top Smokin' Aces which boasted a bigger canvas and cast. Here, he gradually holds his own opposite another big star though the filmmaking and plotting are too manipulative and duplicitous for its own good.
When the violent encounters and chases (with a shaky, violent nod to the Bourne films) aren't occupying the screen (as Blades pops up in an extended cameo as a reliable identity forger) there are the higher-ups in Gleason's David Barlow and Shepard's Harlan Whitford (who both seem to have an interest and curiosity in Matt's motives for aiding a man whose lies have gotten him pretty far). They, along with Vera Farmiga (better in Source Code) as Branch Chief Linklater and Nora Arnezeder as Matt's beautiful girlfriend Ana, planning her medical residency in Paris, are more of a plot and wide demographic necessity than interesting subordinating characters on their own.
The ads for a sonorous Safe House indicate the potential for a little insight into hot-button issues, but even with the sturdy, able Washington (who changes his jaded goatee look) and his younger, increasingly resourceful counterpart in Reynolds, but its intelligence (and the community itself) is conveniently battered and shocked beyond recognition.