February 11, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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SAFE HOUSE:  Watch It At Home – You’ve Seen It



SAFE HOUSE feels like a remake, even though technically it’s not.  It’s a little bit Training Day, a little Bourne, a little Man On Fire (and everything else Tony Scott has ever done), with almost nothing added of its own, an exercise in craft and professionalism that fades into a “People Who Liked This Also Liked…” IMDB list.

The setting is South Africa, where the (young, naive, untested) keeper of the local CIA safe house, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), is finally going to get some excitement in his life:  rogue ex-agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) has turned himself in after years on the run, and is being brought to the safe house for interrogation. No sooner has the waterboarding begun than the safe house itself is under assault, and Matt has to escape with his prisoner, who instantly turns the tables and proves himself–he’s Denzel Washington, for god’s sake–in complete control of the situation.  Matt, reluctantly or not, is aboard for the ride.


Safe House purportedly wants us, and Matt, to ponder whether Tobin Frost is really a good guy gone bad, a bad guy gone good again, or some combination thereof, but don’t spend too much time worrying about it:  the script by David Guggenheim never really makes the situation clear, and serves more as an excuse to run through the paces of contemporary post-Bourne action movies.  There’s the flurry of combat at close quarters, the squeal of chase scene auto tires, and the incessant reversals and double-crosses that come with such clockwork predictability that they’re never very surprising.

There are, meanwhile, regular cuts to senior Agency professionals in Washington (Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson), who stare at video screens and computer graphics and bark out orders with crisp urgency.  At least one of these people–spoiler alert!–turns out to be a traitor, and if you can’t figure out who that’s going to be 15 minutes into the story, you need to see more movies.   Along the way, Matt has his CIA agent bar-mitzvah, becoming a man and presented with knowledge of the way the world really works instead of a fountain pen.

Safe House is directed with efficiency rather than inspiration by Daniel Espinosa, a Swedish director making his US debut.  Espinosa has seen all the movies that went into this screenwriting-class compendium of a script, and he’s borrowed the pungently overexposed cinematography from Tony Scott and the lucid fast cutting from Paul Greengrass (both cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Richard Pearson are veterans of the Bourne franchise).  The movie jumps through its familiar hoops with great professionalism and zero substance.

Washington, himself a veteran of 5 Tony Scott thrillers, is completely in his comfort zone here.  He delivers every ambiguous shade of Tobin Frost, every character reverse and shifting tone of craftiness, cynicism, weariness and dry humor, with precision and star power.  Even when his character is enacting cliches, Washington is riveting.  Reynolds, though, is becoming oddly more bland with every role he takes.  Reynolds, at 36, feels too old to be playing a neophyte agent–with him in the part, Matt feels like a loser rather than a newbie–and Reynolds doesn’t find anything in the role to make Matt distinctive or interesting.  After a while, you become aware that it’s Washington outmatching Reynolds at every turn, not just Tobin outmatching Matt, and that’s not so much fun to watch.   Shepard, Gleeson and Farmiga grimly earn the paychecks that pay for their more substantial indie work.

If movie theaters still ran double features, Safe House would be the perfect picture to run as the bottom half of one.  It’s an acceptable–and yes, safe–piece of undemanding entertainment that doesn’t exert itself in any way to attempt something more.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."