Sunday, February 19, 2012


Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s predictable spy versus spy saga “Safe House” (**1/2 out of ****) resembles “The Bourne Identity” in several respects. The chief difference is Denzel Washington doesn’t play an amnesiac “Bourne” again hero. Instead, he is a rogue CIA agent at large who tops Langley’s most wanted list who remembers everything rotten about the Agency. Like the superb“Bourne” thrillers, this nimble actioneer concerns corrupt CIA superiors who want Denzel dead because he has damaging information about them. Mind you, this isn’t the first time the CIA has been depicted as crooked. Watergate era thrillers such as “Three Days of the Condor” and “Scorpio” deployed that plot back in the early 1970s. Of course, the Agency isn’t entirely corrupt, only some powerful individuals at the top. When freshman scribe David Guggenheim isn’t muddling up things with multiple layers of mystery, Espinosa does his best to captivate us with brief, brutal, and breathless combat scenes that rival the “Bourne” franchise. Lenser Oliver Wood enhances this violence with the same jittery camerawork that he used in the three “Bourne” movies. Three-fourths of “Safehouse” bristles with miscreants either shooting to kill or wielding their fists like cudgels. If you get in the way of these dastards, you die! Any movie where Denzel snaps a guy’s neck like celery and abandons his corpse in a toilet stall isn’t designed to market action hero figures. Indeed, nothing about either Denzel or the tenacious thugs blasting away at his heels is frivolous. “The Green Lantern’s” Ryan Reynolds co-stars as a character roughly similar to the one that actor Ethan Hawke played opposite Denzel in “Training Day.” “Safe House” emerges as one of those male mentoring melodramas where an older guy grooms a younger guy for the grimy world of espionage and corruption.

The Central Intelligence Agency has been trying to nab the elusive Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington of “American Gangster”) for nine years since he quit their ranks. When he shows up at a rendezvous with a shifty British Intelligence agent, Frost’s enemies miss him, but obliterate the MI6 man’s skull. A desperate Frost scrambles for the sanctuary of the American Consulate where the authorities immediately take him into custody. Meanwhile, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a naive, straight-arrow CIA operative itching for the opportunity to prove his mettle. Instead, Langley has relegated Matt to serve as a glorified custodian for one of their safe houses. Twelve months later Matt is still waiting impatiently for a posting as a field agent. Trouble is he lacks the experience that would make him eligible. Life in Cape Town, South Africa, where Matt is stationed as a ‘housekeeper’ bores him to tears. Despite friendly reassurances from his immediate superior David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson of “The General”), Matt feels like he is stuck in a dead-end assignment. When he isn’t supervising the CIA safe house, Matt cavorts with a gorgeous French gal, Ana (Nora Arnezeder of “Paris 36”), and fills her ears with lies about his work.

After CIA Deputy Director Harlan Whitford (Sam Sheppard of “Black Hawk Down”) learns about Frost’s capture, he transfers the treasonous Frost to Cape Town for safekeeping. Frost’s unexpected arrival at Matt’s safe house catches our hero by surprise. He watches with obvious misgivings as a group of ruthless CIA agents, led by Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), subject Frost to some grueling water-board torture. As it turns out, Washington didn’t use a stand-in for the torture scenes. Anyway, Kiefer’s men get nowhere with Frost. Suddenly, another gang of gunmen burst in with guns blazing. They aren't in the mood to take prisoners. Things don’t look promising for Matt who is supposed to shield Frost. Frost reminds Matt that the killers want him alive, but they won’t display any charity toward Matt. Impulsively, Matt ushers Front at gun point from the safe house. The two men form an uneasy alliance as they struggle to stay one step ahead of adamant adversaries. Gradually, Matt learns what a CIA agent has to look forward to in his line of work. Frost plays along with Matt as they hide out from the gunmen. Gradually, the renegade agent lulls the rookie into a false sense of security before he catches him off guard. When they venture out into public, Frost alerts the police that Matt is armed and dangerous. The Cape Town cops seize Matt while Frost vanishes into thin air. Not surprisingly, Matt’s superiors in Washington react with rage. Not only does Whitford put Matt’s boss Barlow on a plane to South Africa, but he also has a snooty, suspicious associate, Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga of “The Departed”), accompany him. Catherine strongly suspects that Frost has turned Matt. When Matt calls Whitford to explain what happened, Whitford orders him to stand down. Nevertheless, Matt sets out to recapture Frost. Our hero isn’t prepared for what he learns about either Frost or his CIA honchos.

“Safe House” benefits from on-location lensing in Cape Town. Everything appears genuinely gritty and none of it looks familiar. This isn’t the kind of spy thriller that boasts exotic locations, desirable dames, and cool gadgets. Espinosa, Guggenheim, and Washington—who doubles as one of the executive producers—are gunning for realism, and they achieve it. The close quarters combat scenes will have you searching for bruises on yourself. Sadly, the surprises that occur throughout “Safe House” aren’t revelations, and the ending seems straight out of “Three Days of the Condor.” If you’ve seen "Hanna," "Red," "Salt,” "Knight and Day" or “Haywire,” you know what comes next at every turn. “Safe House” isn’t as good as some of Denzel’s earlier films, and he generates little sympathy with his martyred shades-of-gray character. Poor Vera Farmiga plays the most thankless role in the action, while Brendan Gleeson and Sam Sheppard turn in sturdy performances. On the other hand, Ryan Reynolds delivers the strongest performance and emerges as a contender. “Safe House” is best watched as a rental.