Everyone's a Bad Guy
I admit that I went into Safe House with a few preconceptions:
1. I felt sure that Denzel Washington would eventually turn out to be on the side of right.
2. I thought that by the end, Ryan Reynolds and Denzel would be serious bros.
3. I assumed that the two stars would spend most of their time trading quips in between firing shots and outdriving the bad guys. (Isn't that why they hire charming actors in the first place?)
None of these things happened.
Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA agent who went rogue some time ago. He makes his money stealing information and selling it to the highest bidder. At first, he appears morally corrupt and ruthless. By the end, he is revealed to be exactly as corrupt and ruthless as your average non-rogue CIA employee.
Ryan Reynolds plays himself (as he does), an inexperienced agent named Matt Weston assigned to oversee a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He is bored out of his mind, spending his days all alone, staring at the walls of the empty building where nothing ever happens. That's when he isn't working out or taking sexy showers with his hot French girlfriend.
Their paths cross one day after Frost walks in to the American consulate. He had just purchased a particularly important microchip and some ugly men with guns seem intent on killing him. So, although he is a man without a country, the U.S. seems like a relatively safe haven. That's until the CIA orders him to Weston's safe house, which is promptly breeched by the same ugly men with guns. How did they find him? What do they want?
I wish more action thrillers cast bizarrely ugly people as the lead bad guys, especially when we never learn their names. What with all the shooting and dying and car chasing, it can be easy to lose track of who's whom. But with a prominently disfigured nose and a terribly complexion, keeping everybody straight is suddenly much easier.
Anyway, all of the CIA interrogators sent to water board Frost end up being killed, leaving only Ryan Reynolds (I mean, Weston) and Frost himself.
Weston takes his job very seriously, and Frost is a legendary defector. Weston knows that successfully relocating Frost will be a quick ticket out of South Africa and into a more exciting, secret-agent-style job. He spends his time trying to protect Frost from the mysterious ugly assassins and trying to prevent Frost from escaping/killing him. This is difficult, because Weston is inexperienced and not very confident in his ass-kicking abilities. He learns.
This is the point when I expected the quips to start flying, for Frost to explain how he had been set up, that he is really a good guy, for the bromance sparks to start flying. But it turns out that the plot is legitimately suspenseful (though not super original), the dialogue isn't embarrassing (!) and, though we never really learn what made Frost go freelance, everything makes a certain amount of sense by the end. How many action movies in the last five years have that much going for them?
The action is suspenseful, well-paced and surprisingly dark. The fighting and car chases are old-school, in that there are a minimum of special effects and camera tricks. My favorite death is the first one in the movie, when Frost casually snaps the neck of a man who has come to kill him in a bathroom stall. In another movie, it would have been funny. In this one, it was bad ass.
Safe House is very well shot and, awesomely, in the city where it takes place -- Cape Town, South Africa. Not many big budget block busters take place in Africa, let alone get shot there. Foreign direct investment is crucial to the dark continent's future, and moviemaking is so much nicer than mining or drilling, no? It helps that Cape Town is a spectacularly beautiful place, though the movie also shows the squalor of the suburban townships.
I'll be honest: It's refreshing to see the ever-handsome, uber-charming Denzel Washington playing a guy who's just a small step above a sociopath. Ryan Reynolds is fine; he's a man who has mastered the art of being just bland enough to fit seamlessly into whatever role he is placed without expending too much effort.