“Safe House” is solid evidence of mind-body duality. This overproduced spy thriller never really seized my imagination, but it kept my knee jiggling nervously for 115 minutes.
Ryan Reynolds plays a junior CIA spook assigned to keep the agency’s refuge in Cape Town, South Africa, ready for action. It’s a dead-end job, but his Langley-based mentor (Brendan Gleeson) advises him to sit tight: Every desirable posting has a milelong line of more experienced applicants.
The dull routine is shattered when a squadron of heavily armed agents arrives at the safe-house door with rogue operative Denzel Washington in custody. Reynolds has his eyes opened to real-world spycraft as he observes Washington undergoing a waterboarding interrogation.
Several plot twists later, Reynolds and Washington are on the lam, trying to outrun enemies who anticipate their every move. Reynolds wants to keep control of his smarter, stronger, more slippery prisoner. Washington wants to escape and something more that will not astound anyone who has heard of WikiLeaks.
Back at CIA headquarters, top man Sam Shepard and his aide Vera Farmiga join Gleeson in scowling at big screens scrolling through gigabytes of Really Very Important Highly Top Secret data. All this frowning, pacing and fretting at HQ while field agents get painfully wised-up places “Safe House” firmly in the “Bourne” world of pessimistic espionage.
Director Daniel Espinosa has a real gift for grimy-windshield faux realism and bone-rattling action sequences, which almost compensates for the boilerplate plot. Espinosa films South Africa in an expressionist palette of hot oranges and livid greens. He brings irresistible momentum to car chases and fight scenes, flinging us all over with frantic handheld camera work.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathetic pain when an agent gets beaten with a shard of glass or suffocated. But while his technique is hyperstylish, Espinosa hasn’t mastered the trick of pulling us inside the action, connecting us to fully fleshed-out characters.
Washington’s performance is a highlights reel combining the stoic heroism of “Unstoppable,” the antihero ambiguity of “Inside Job” and the take-no-prisoners physicality of “Training Day.” Reynolds holds his customary wise-guy arrogance in check, acting pinched with anxiety in every scene.
I won’t deny that the movie hooked me with sheer brute energy and dragged me along with it most of the way. It left me wrung out and battered but unmoved.