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Predictable but Effective

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Safe House
stars
Starring Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga

DANGER! DANGER! Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds discover there’s no safe house for government protection and national security. Courtesy photo

Denzel Washington is a talent who is often far better than the movie in which he stars. He is remarkably consistent. In just over 20 years, he’s amassed the kind of résumé for which most actors would kill. His career rarely includes awful films; sure, he had a few stinkers early on, like “Heart Condition” and “Virtuosity.” Every once in a while, there is an uninspired big-budget blockbuster like “The Taking of Pelham 123” or “Unstoppable.” More often than not, Denzel Washington delivers far better performances than we deserve. “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Training Day,” “American Gangster,” “Philadelphia,” “Glory,” “Crimson Tide,” “Remember the Titans,” “Malcolm X,” “The Hurricane”—these are the kind of performances young actors should watch and absorb.

It’s very rare that I would equate any actor with perfection, but I think Denzel Washington is the closest thing we have in this country. There are a few Brits I think could be thrown into the mix; Gary Oldman comes to mind. Anyway, the point here is that Denzel Washington is an amazing actor who can sometimes end up in an average film, for which he’s capable of elevating to another level. He is the acting equivalent to hot sauce: He makes a good film better and a mediocre film tolerable.

I mentioned “Training Day” earlier, a movie which landed him an Oscar for Best Actor. “Safe House” feels very much cribbed from “Training Day.” There is the same kind of dynamic between leading men as in “Training Day,” when Ethan Hawke played the rookie who had to deal with the corruption and moral grays presented by his new partner. “Safe House” replaces Hawke with Ryan Reynolds. Instead of a conflicted cop, there is a a conflicted intelligence operative named Matt Weston, who helps run a government safe house in South Africa (yes, this is a movie where actors say the title of the film a lot). This is a film that would make a nifty drinking game. Take a shot every time somebody says “safe house”; drunk by the second reel (old-timey film reference).

Fortunately for audiences it turns out this safe house isn’t very safe at all. It may be the most ironic film name since “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” which turned out to be anything but. It’s not just the one safe house that has security issues; every safe house in this movie has so many breaches in security, I began to question our national safety. Apparently, there is no place to safely house criminals or agents. No agent can be trusted because they will no doubt go rogue and end up selling America’s most closely guarded secrets to our enemies. Much like the Jason Bourne films, “Safe House” creates a morbid and, frankly, depressing take on our government’s tasks of protecting our way of life. They spend so much time turning on one another I wondered exactly how they had time to prevent terrorist attackers from blowing up underwear bombs on transatlantic flights.

Reynolds plays the “housekeeper” of this secret CIA base, which is currently housing one of America’s most wanted, Tobin Frost (Washington). He’s the kind of cold, calculating threat which thrives on the mind-fuck. His reputation has made him feared among his peers. After the safe house is compromised by a kill-squad, Weston has to take Tobin and try to secure the very dangerous prisoner. Frost begins to play mind-games with Weston. Trust comes into play. By surviving the hit squad, has Weston made himself a suspect?

“Safe House” works as a potboiler. It’s a very tightly wound film that does a great job of creating a sense of impending dread. There’s never a moment where the characters feel like they have their footing. I give credit to its director, Daniel Espinosa, for creating a world of cloak-and-dagger that genuinely felt as if there was no safety net. It’s a brutal, highly effective thriller—one greatly improved by the presence of Washington and Reynolds.

The ending lives on the corner of Predictable Boulevard and Convenient Court. The third act reveal is so obvious and so telegraphed that only the most attention-deficit wouldn’t see it coming. The movie’s biggest failing is how predictable it becomes: a novel setup that quickly devolves into a well-constructed but fairly unoriginal affair.

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