Playing it a little too ‘Safe’: CIA thriller shows a cool and calm Denzel Washington, but the charisma is missing
It takes only one shot to understand how Denzel Washington’s feeling in “Safe House.’’ He plays Tobin Frost, one of those misunderstood CIA operatives who’s “gone rogue,’’ who’s “off the reservation’’ - you can really tell because, for about an hour, his hair and goatee are beginning to go all Cornel West. For reasons this movie tries but fails to make clear, Tobin is a) named Tobin, b) extremely wanted for double-agenting, and c) in possession of information that would seem to exonerate his defection but that he needs an entire 115-minute action-thriller to bring to light.
After a tense early sequence, Tobin turns himself in at Cape Town’s American consulate (South Africa is the hot new place to film cheaply) and is dragged to an interrogation room inside one of the CIA’s so-called safe houses. He knows he’s about to be waterboarded, but he’s unfazed. That’s when we get a shot of Tobin seated with his legs crossed and his cuffed hands calmly folded, as though he’s waiting for a girlfriend to finish in a department-store fitting room. It’s a comical shot insofar as it’s supremely Denzel.
Here is a star in such complete command of his cool that he can’t even be bothered to look a little nervous about the prospect of torture. Frost sounds like just the right name for a man who barely winces in a crashed car, and who never seems out of breath even after a foot chase across the tin roofs of a shanty township (yes, “Safe House’’ is that movie, too).
Because he’s being hunted by a gang of heavily armed, extremely incompetent local thugs who want what he has, Tobin must be whisked away to a safer house by Matt Weston, an under-ripe field agent played by Ryan Reynolds. Matt’s determined to bring Tobin in. Tobin refuses to go without first instigating a half-dozen action sequences. At some point, the laughless hate-love relationship between these two makes you long for the wit in the script of “Midnight Run’’ or the chemistry of ambivalence that passes there between Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, and Sam Shepard intensify the dragginess through no fault of their own. Everything they do and say is procedural control-room talk. There’s more drama on C-SPAN, although Farmiga’s blouses emit a robust authority best described as “high Dunaway.’’
Meanwhile, Washington gets to show another young actor how stardom is done. Previous pupils include Ethan Hawke (“Training Day’’) and Chris Pine (“Unstoppable’’). Reynolds actually gets better the longer he’s in Washington’s company. Otherwise, he’s asked to be an action figure, which is what Washington is also doing to some extent, but he - along with his stunt double - does that with soul.
Washington’s serenity is absurd. Yet it’s exactly what’s needed in a by-the-numbers chase-’em-down and shoot-’em-up with lots of intentionally sea-sickening camerawork: confidence. The director, Daniel Espinosa, is a Swede making his first Hollywood movie and nothing he does distinguishes “Safe House’’ within a genre whose bar was elevated by the “Bourne’’ movies. He manages the brawls and shootouts just fine. But like a lot of movies, too many of the fights and too much of the flight look like they’ve been pulsed in a blender, which either insults or rescues the stunt choreographer. Not that there’s much to eagerly follow in the screenplay, which is credited to David Guggenheim but feels so homogenized that the ethical breaches and double-agent stuff have no sting. So many people are risking and giving their lives, and we barely care.
Showtime just aired a version of this sort of ambiguous-agent plot with “Homeland,’’ a series whose incisive writing, directing, and acting make it difficult to enjoy a movie as chewed-up-and-spit-out as “Safe House.’’ That displeasure goes for Washington, too. Even as this jowlier, thicker-middled man (you hate to ask but could the baggy silken shirts be from the Steven Seagal “Still Kicking’’ collection?), it’s very easy to watch him here.
But “Safe House’’ is also the latest outing - “Man on Fire,’’ “The Book of Eli,’’ and “Unstoppable’’ are some recent others - that makes you pleased to have the swaggering intensity, virility, professionalism, and cool that Denzel Washington brings to his work. It’s just that I watch these movies and think about “Training Day,’’ “Inside Man,’’ “American Gangster,’’ or “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3’’ and realize I’m not getting the most of his charisma or enough of that million-dollar dental work. I’m not getting the joy, and I miss that.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.