Just by accepting a part with the thumbnail description ‘rogue CIA agent’, Denzel Washington reveals he’s more or less coasting through Safe House. With earnest, busy, likable, hardworking plodder Ryan Reynolds to play off, Washington doesn’t need to engage more than half of his abilities to walk away with the film on sheer charisma, a nice line in superior attitude (Frost warns the debriefing team who are about to waterboard him that they’re using the wrong towels) and a few fast moves (an escape on foot across the tin roofs of township shacks). Without regular collaborator Tony Scott at the helm (Daniel Espinosa has made a few Swedish films, but this is his English-language debut), the star Washington doesn’t even seem to break a sweat as this okay Bourne-type spy thriller dashes between plot points on picturesque yet gritty South African locations.
This type of cynical, implausible action picture works best if it moves too fast to follow, but here pauses to develop character — as rookie Matt Weston learns life lessons from the veteran agent such as it’s difficult to be a spy and have a relationship — let the audience catch up and figure out way too early where it’s going. Is “the legendary Tobin Frost” really the all-round bad guy and betrayer that his CIA apprehend-and-interrogate file makes him out to be? Which of the suited analysts back in Washington — you get a choice of Sam Shepard behind a desk, Vera Farmiga wasted in yet another end-of-a-phone-line role and Brendan Gleeson as hefty yet canny slob — will turn out to be less than 100 per cent good? What’s on the secret file handed over by guest star Liam Cunningham which Frost carries about in a pellet injected into his midriff?
It’s an undemanding, entertaining movie — a lot like a Steven Seagal direct-to-DVD picture in concept, but with lead actors who care enough to take it all seriously, inventive use of South African locations (a chase through one of those old World Cup soccer stadiums), and an array
of solid-to-outstanding supporting players (rising Joel Kinnaman gets to have a brutal fight with Reynolds, veteran Ruben Blades forges a passport).