Would it surprise anyone to learn that Denzel Washington carries Safe House with his usual dynamic performance? If you've seen any Denzel Washington-led movie, then you know what he can do. He's a world class actor who can elevate even some of the weakest scripts in Hollywood.
Safe House is far from perfect, but it's also pretty far from the worst film that Washington has been in. Safe House actually gives Washington one of his most fun characters in years in the form of Tobin Frost, a former CIA agent turned rogue operative who effortlessly deals death with a charming smile. Apparently in the world of Safe House, Tobin Frost is so famous in intelligence circles that even low level operatives in charge of secret CIA sanctuaries know who he is.
Enter Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston, the lone agent in the CIA's South African safe house. When we meet Weston, he has no idea about the s***storm about to erupt with Frost's arrival. Because someone like Frost would not allow themselves to be captured unless he had a very good reason. And when that reason catches up to him, Frost and Weston have to flee for their lives.
Very early in the film, there's an action sequence in which Weston is driving a stolen vehicle to escape from the people trying to kill him while desperately fighting with Frost for control of the car. It's a very John Frankenheimer-like scene that appears as if it was shot with practical effects instead of CGI; which gives it an intense and exciting quality. This was also my favorite part of the movie.
Swedish director Daniel Espinosa makes his American debut with Safe House, and for the most part he does so with confidence and style. His action scenes are well staged and the dynamic between Frost and Weston is really engaging. Make no mistake, this isn't a buddy comedy and Frost constantly tries to undermine or elude his younger counterpart. Frost has clearly been playing this game a long time and he's very good at it. Frost also seems to enjoy pointing out to Weston how the agency will hang him out to dry.
Although Washington won the Oscar for playing Alonzo Harris in Training Day, that character always felt cartoonishly evil to me (especially in the last third of that film). Tobin Frost is actually a much more satisfying character to watch, in part because he isn't so over-the-top. And it seems that Frost may have been someone very much like Weston at the beginning of his intelligence career. He's just had the idealism drained from his soul after years spent in the trenches.
There's even a physical transformation in the film, as Frost sheds his excess hair and emerges looking younger and more clean cut like the more heroic roles that Washington played earlier in his career. But Washington's greatest moments in this movie almost always come in silence, as we see the wheels turning in his mind while figuring out what to do next or how he can best manipulate Weston into doing what he wants.
Against an actor like Washington, it's fair to say that almost anyone could be blown away onscreen. And from some of his previous films, I'd have guessed that Reynolds would have come off poorly by comparison to Washington. Instead, Reynolds holds his own and he is fairly restrained as Weston without being a jokey, sarcastic hero like several of his earlier roles. Reynolds and Washington actually have very good chemistry while playing off of each other. It also helps that Washington doesn't seem to be trying to upstage Reynolds or show him up.
The story of Safe House is fairly conventional, but it's still fun and the movie was pretty entertaining. I doubt that this is going to be the start of the next big action franchise, but I really would like to see Tobin Frost on the big screen again.