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By Alex Lynchehaun
Safe House sees a rogue American spy with the suitably implausible name of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) turn himself in to the US consulate in Cape Town in order to escape a group of shadowy assassins. He is taken to a CIA safe house run by inexperienced agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), but when the assassins discover its location, Frost and Weston are forced to flee. Weston attempts to bring Frost to another safe house to await extraction, while avoiding the murderous attentions of their pursuers. Frost, however, has no intention of returning to custody.
Things start extremely well. The early scenes are excellent, in particular the one in which the safe house is attacked. Tense and claustrophobic, it plays like a sort of CIA Panic Room. Once proceedings move on from there however, Safe House becomes a very mixed bag. Director Daniel Espinosa makes good use of his Cape Town location – for once, a foreign backdrop is not just window dressing, but actually adds character and colour. Oliver Wood’s (who worked on all three Bourne films) cinematography is also wonderful – the bleached palette and somewhat grainy camera work contribute to an effectively edgy atmosphere.
The problem is that Wood is not the only thing Safe House and the Bourne movies share. Safe House’s debt to the series is obvious, from the choppily edited action scenes to the rogue spy plot. Unfortunate for Safe House it comes off second best by comparison. The film’s second half is nowhere near as satisfying as the first. The action scenes, individually exciting enough, soon become repetitive. As the plot draws towards its preposterous conclusion, the pace slows down, and things began to drag on – Safe House is a full half hour too long. And while Weston and Frost are intriguing personalities, the supporting characters barely amount to cardboard cutouts. One character is so affably friendly that you know as soon as they show up on screen they’ll turn out to be a traitor. The motives for the bad guys, meanwhile, are not revealed till late. When they are, you’ll feel cheated.
Denzel Washington is, however, on top form as Frost. Cold, ruthless and calculating, he’s a truly threatening villain. It’s unfortunate the filmmakers lose their nerve and attempt to redeem him as a Good Guy late on. As a character, Frost is at his most interesting when he’s at his most sociopathic. Reynolds also does good work with Weston, giving him a believable vulnerability. The supporting cast struggle with their roles however – even Brendan Gleeson has a rare off-day, his Irish twang coming through his American accent.
But Safe House shouldn’t be dismissed out right. For all its faults, Safe House is undeniably well crafted, and features two excellent performances from the leads. It’s no Bourne – ultimately Safe House is an average action thriller with ideas above its station. But unlike most of its genre, Safe House is a film with genuine ambitions, and for that it should be commended.