The tagline on the poster for Safe House is “No One is Safe.” And indeed, it’s true. Denzel Washington’s Tobin Frost and Ryan Reynolds’ Matt Weston, along with a grab bag of anonymous henchman, spend most of Safe House’s two hours blazing a trail of destruction through Cape Town, apparently hell-bent on killing as many innocent civilians as they can.
This is a shame because the film’s best moments are the brief conversations between Frost and Weston. Frost is a former CIA agent who was one of America’s top operatives until he went rogue nine years ago. He has 14 different identities and is now wanted in 36 countries on four continents. Weston, meanwhile, is a young CIA employee who has spent his last year as the “housekeeper” of a secret government safe house in Cape Town, which mostly entails a lot of sitting around. He craves an opportunity to prove himself, so that he can earn a transfer to an embassy in Europe. Typical of an action movie, Safe House is very light on character development, and no one other than these two has any sort of back story whatsoever.
Frost shows up in Cape Town to buy a mysterious microchip from a British guy, and within minutes, he has been tracked down by a team of assassins of unknown origin who want the chip for themselves. Frost finds himself surrounded, and in his desperation, he sees the American Consulate down the street and decides to make a break for it. He doesn’t run there, mind you. Despite constantly being hunted throughout the film, we never once see him run. He just walks briskly, at least once to his own detriment when those chasing him run and catch up. Was this in Washington’s contract or something? It doesn’t make much sense.
Frost is taken to the safe house, where Weston finally gets a taste of action when the team of assassins comes to grab him. It is Weston’s job to protect his houseguests, so he escapes with Frost and they commandeer a car. Weston forces Frost into the trunk, only to have Frost break through into the backseat midway through the ensuing car chase. Frost inexplicably attempts to choke out Weston as he drives, despite the fact that they are zooming through city traffic at 50 miles per hour. Weston completely gives up guiding the car in favor of fighting off strangulation, and yet they miraculously survive (but not before causing at least a dozen cars to crash at high speeds). Even for an action movie, this required a pretty extreme suspension of disbelief.
The rest of the movie consists of Weston continually losing and recapturing Frost, all the while pursued by ruthless killers who have no problem gunning down civilians in their quest to steal the chip from Frost. The action scenes are nothing special, and there is a bit too much shaky, close-up camera work during fights, without ever pulling out to show the wider scene.
So what is on this chip? Frustratingly, we never really find out. We are only told that it contains information about “corruption” in the intelligence community, and that Frost plans to sell it for a hefty fee. Well, I don’t want to get into a whole Wikileaks debate, but can you really blame the CIA for pulling out all the stops in order to stop someone from leaking massive amounts of highly classified intelligence, even if it does detail “corruption?” Isn’t corruption the whole point of intelligence? When Weston finally gets ahold of the chip and leaks it to the world, we don’t have enough information to make a judgment on whether this was the right thing for him to do.
The best scenes in the film were the ones in which Frost and Weston were alone and Frost was attempting to get inside Weston’s head. The dynamic between them was too often interrupted by violence, when a bit more exploration of it could’ve set Safe House apart from the countless other action movies that don’t bother to create compelling characters. Unfortunately, Safe House ends up as little more than a run-of-the-mill action movie.