There are few better ways for an actor to show off his chops than by playing the clever trickster in a thriller (think of Daniel Craig's 007 at the poker table, or Matt Damon's Bourne leading his CIA overseers through the looking glass). In the opening scenes of Safe House, you can tell what a good time Denzel Washington is having as Tobin Frost, an American spy in Cape Town, South Africa, who is five steps ahead of everyone else. His look is pure sleight of hand: In glasses, gray scarf, and overcoat, with an earring, a serious goatee, and his gray-flecked hair teased out, Washington resembles a hipster Malcolm X a great look for him, even if it feels like a costume. Meeting with an MI6 agent, Tobin purchases the mother of all top secret files, then wastes no time pulling out a lab kit that allows him to inject the file right under his skin. Very tricky!
Moments later, he's under attack (a lot of folks want that file), so he turns himself in to the U.S. consulate. Only then do we learn that Frost is a rogue agent who ditched the CIA and has spent nine years trading secrets with America's enemies. Why has he done this? And why has he decided to turn himself in? Those questions form the bedrock of Washington's hyper-cool, minimalist performance. As a crew of Langley officials (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard) purse their lips with importance, Frost is placed in a CIA safe house overseen by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who's been twiddling his thumbs there for a year. When thugs enter, yet somehow fail to find Frost tethered to a chair, he and Matt escape, gunning through the streets in a smash-and-grab car chase.
The movie, as if on an action time clock, punches in the standard set pieces: bloody fights, clattering shoot-outs, an escape through a packed soccer stadium. Some of this stuff is well-done, and some of it has been done a lot better. Yet Safe House, even when it's pummeling you effectively, has very little up its sleeve. Basically, the movie is a fizzless Bourne episode crossed with Training Day, featuring Washington as a good-egg-gone-rotten who, you know, has his reasons. Mostly, he schools Matt, his guard-turned-pursuer, in what it means to lie.
Reynolds is physically impressive, even if his acting here consists of morphing from a deer-in-the-headlights look to a mean squint as the movie goes on. The director, Daniel Espinosa, shoots in highly saturated colors, edits everything into a frenzy, and creates the illusion of intrigue. But compared with a superior potboiler like Salt, which messed with your brain in entertainingly far-fetched ways, Safe House is action-movie porridge gussied up into a less-clever-than-it-seems mystery. Which is why the trickiness of Washington's performance begins to ebb, replaced by something somber that might even look tragic if this movie were actually about anything. B-