Denzel Washington in a scene from "Safe House." / Jasin Boland/Universal Pictures
Two stars (out of four)
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Two stars (out of four)
Denzel Washington is always good, but he's best when he's bad.
Director Daniel Espinosa would have done well to remember that in his film "Safe House." Certainly Tobin Frost, the rogue CIA agent Washington plays, has a murderous reputation, and he snaps a few necks along the way. But too often Washington is made to simply sit and observe -- which is not a fatal mistake, since he is such a good actor that even then he's worth watching.
Worse, though, at times he's gone altogether. That's not the only flaw in the fairly straightforward thriller, but it's the biggest.
When Washington is paired with Ryan Reynolds' Matt Weston, an inexperienced agent trying to bring him in, the movie is intriguing; you can sense Frost seeping into Weston's consciousness, despite Weston's best efforts to prevent it. ("I'm already in your head," Frost tells a defiant Weston at one point, and you can tell they both know it's true.)
Weston has spent 12 months guarding a safe house in South Africa -- a safe house with no one in it. He has a beautiful girlfriend in medical school (Nora Arnezeder), who knows nothing of his real work. Not that it's very exciting. Weston spends his hours on duty bored out of his skull. He openly campaigns with his superior, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) for a better assignment, but for the time being he's stuck where he is.
Enter Frost -- literally. After conducting some nefarious business and escaping assassins in a chaotic chase scene, Frost turns himself in to the U.S. consulate. This is a man the government has been seeking for nine years, who deposits himself on the doorstep. Under the orders of Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), the assistant CIA director, Frost is transferred to Weston's safe house, which is almost immediately attacked. Amid the carnage, Frost convinces Weston that they need to escape to stay alive -- keeping Frost alive being part of Weston's mission, after all.
So they go on the lam. Weston knows his job is to get Frost, evidently the most wanted man on the planet, into some form of traditional custody. But for reasons that sound sort of ridiculous, no extraction teams can reach them for 18 hours, so they have to just kind of mill around and wait. You know, babysitting the most dangerous killer in the world. Alone.
Guess how that goes.
Washington hasn't won two Oscars for nothing; he's a great actor. And Reynolds is underrated. But, without giving too much away, David Guggenheim's script requires that they not spend the entire movie together, which is too bad. Washington conveys a sense of menace with just a hint of a smile -- what is this guy thinking, you wonder, suspecting that it can't be good.
But the script is riddled with cliches; Shepard in particular has to utter some groaners that must have pained him greatly. Vera Farmiga finds herself in a similar situation, as a professional rival of Gleeson's Barlow.
There are twists in the plot, of course -- this is an action thriller. And Espinosa knows his way around a shoot-'em-up scene, though his reliance on a shaky hand-held camera, coupled with over-saturating the film, is interesting for about five minutes; unfortunately, the movie lasts 115.
The minutes in which Washington and Reynolds play their mind games together are the most rewarding. Everything else feels like there is something missing -- no doubt because there is.