Review: 'Safe House' beats audience, actors to a pulp

Published Feb. 13, 2012

Movies don't come any brawnier than Safe House, and all that chaotic mayhem eventually beats the plot to a pulp. By the fadeout, viewers are equally pummeled by what is essentially a series of action set pieces punctuated by grim whispers of suspicion.

Safe House stars Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost, a CIA agent on the run for nine years while accused of selling sensitive information to whomever the CIA doesn't trust. His latest item up for bid is a microchip loaded with dirty laundry documents about something obvious that the movie takes its time declaring. Frost almost gets killed obtaining the microchip then surrenders at a U.S. consulate in Cape Town, South Africa.

The CIA wants to know why Frost turned himself in, and what damage he has caused to national security, so he's transferred to a safe house for interrogation. The place is manned alone by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who's an unremarkable agent and that's why he's here. Matt knows Tobin's deadly reputation that CIA exposition specialists already shared with the audience, so he's rattled.

An interrogation team arrives but only squeezes in two waterboarding sessions before security is bloodily breached by the same guys who tried earlier to kill Tobin. Obviously there's a mole in the agency, whose identity can be guessed from the casting credits. So, we have the who, what and why of this situation pretty nailed down in the first reel. All that's left for director Daniel Espinoza is how high the body count and collateral damage will be.

Matt is determined to prove his mettle by keeping Tobin alive and in custody. Tobin's instincts tell him Matt isn't ready for this and begins messing with his head. Few actors taunt with chillier understatement than Washington, projecting superior intellect and guarding it with passive-aggressive sarcasm. There's a good performance here nearly drowned out by gunfire.

Tobin is the more interesting half of this duo, yet screenwriter David Guggenheim diverts the film's focus to Matt, played well enough by Reynolds. We get peeks into Matt's life outside the safe house, lying to a lover (Nora Arnezeder) about what he does for a living. Tobin grabs that head games angle like a hillbilly handfisher. It's part of the male bonding process, along with wrapping gauze around the other guy's bullet wound.

Espinoza stages plenty of ballistic situations, usually involving careening cars for someone to get shot. The streets of Cape Town and its shanty townships must still be cleaning up. Safe House is a repetitive sensory assault; it doesn't take long for explosions, scraping metal and fists on flesh to sound the same.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.