Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Written by: David Guggenheim
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Rubén Blades, Nora Arnezeder, Robert Patrick
Hollywood studios live and often die by the following axiom: Succeed once and try, try again to repeat that same success. Case in point: The BOURNE franchise. Matt Damon may have decided against appearing in the BOURNE franchise (Jeremy Renner will step into in THE BOURNE LEGACY as another traumatized, government-trained assassin), but BOURNE’s real legacy can be found in the myriad imitators the franchise has spawned, beginning with the BOND franchise reboot through last year’s double-dose of teen Bournes, HANNA and ABDUCTION, to last month’s gender reversal, HAYWIRE, to the latest entry, SAFE HOUSE, a generic, predictable action-thriller that few moviegoers will love, but some, maybe many, will find an adequate time-waster until March and higher profile films arrive in multiplexes.
SAFE HOUSE centers on two characters, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), an inexperienced CIA field agent and resident “housekeeper” for a “safe house” in Cape Town, South Africa, and Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a former CIA agent-turned- international fugitive. Every intelligence agency and ostensibly democratic government in the Western world wants a word with Frost. After a decade evading capture (or worse), Frost turns himself in at the American consulate. Eager to debrief Frost (among other things), the CIA sends an extraction team led by Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick). Given wide latitude by his superiors, Kiefer subjects Frost to the equivalent of “harsh interrogation techniques” (a.k.a. “torture” everywhere else). Before Frost breaks, well-armed mercenaries attack the now compromised (and ironically named) safe house.
Not surprisingly, only Weston and Frost survive the attack on the safe house. Segue to an extended car chase through the streets and alleyways of Cape Town, chaotically choreographed by a Swedish director, Daniel Espinosa (EASY MONEY, OUTSIDE LOVE, BABYLONSJUKAN), making his English-language debut, to duplicate, imitate, and otherwise resemble the finer directorial efforts of Tony “The Lesser” Scott (THE TAKING OF THE PELHAM 1-2-3, DÉJÀ VU, MAN ON FIRE) and Paul Greengrass (GREEN ZONE,THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY). Following, let alone comprehending action beats, is of secondary, even tertiary importance. It’s all about the requisite energy and urgency that supposedly accompanies action-oriented filmmaking, at least where Hollywood is concerned. Super-fast edits, shaky cam, and the requisite grainy, desaturated color palette are all in evidence as well.
First-time screenwriter David Guggenheim gives Weston the obligatory romantic interest, Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder), a French doctor completing her residency in oncology in South Africa, to tweak the sympathy meter in Weston’s favor. Frost doesn’t get a romantic interest or even much of a backstory, just a late-film reveal to partially explain why he left the CIA and a brief reconnection with an old associate, Carlos Villar (Rubén Blades), which hints at the life, the road not traveled. An obvious student of the BOURNE trilogy, Guggenheim occasionally switches back to CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, for exposition-filled scenes between several senior CIA officials, including Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), and Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard).
Taking yet another page form the BOURNE trilogy, Guggenheim and Espinosa tip their hand early on that a mole or traitor compromised the safe house (a “No sh*t, Sherlock,” moment if there ever was one). It takes Weston and his superiors in Virginia an inordinate amount of time, however, to make a similar conclusion. In the meantime, Frost does what he does best, playing head games with his over-burdened, under-prepared captor while planning his escape. SAFE HOUSE eventually morphs into a variant on MIDNIGHT RUN or the LETHAL WEAPON cycle. The antagonists-turned-potential-allies angle, however, becomes secondary as SAFE HOUSE caroms from one serviceable, unremarkable action set-piece to another before taking a page from THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (minus the cynicism and skepticism) that’s nothing less than pure wish fulfillment. Echoing a memorable scene in TORN CURTAIN, Hitchcock’s minor Cold War thriller, Espinosa and Guggenheim give Reynolds a brutal, BOURNE-style fight scene in the third act that will improve Reynolds’ cred in the action genre.