Watching “Safe House” reminded me of something a savvy girlfriend once said to me: “When a guy tells you that his top-secret real job is working for the CIA, get out of the relationship as fast as you can.” Not because of the obvious risks such a job may involve, she said, but because “the guy is a big fat liar nut-job.” Oh, that’s why.
Apparently, it’s only in movies such as “Safe House” (released in Japan as “Dangerous Run”) that a handsome man with perfect abs suddenly hands his gorgeous girlfriend a wad of cash and tells her to hotfoot it to “Paris, France” because he works for an agency named with three letters, the first letter being C, and he’s in immediate danger and doesn’t want her to get involved.
And then this gorgeous chick (who happens to be French) breaks down and starts sobbing and asks if he loves her in a terrific accent. And the scene plays out on a station platform, which is the go-to venue for moments of CIA-or-similar-agency-imbued personal confessions followed by wrenching goodbyes (see “Salt,” “The Good Shepherd,” or “Mission Impossible”).
In real life, unfortunately, there’s no wad of cash, most likely the guy has no abs worth noting, the station platform is some bleak JR strip of grey concrete crammed with drunken salarymen and the girl has to get on the phone double-quick to check in with a savvy girlfriend about this big fat liar nut-job — should she just kick him in the shins and go home, or what? Reality — it’s a bummer.
But we can all dream. Which is probably why “Safe House” and others like it will always be around: The genre is a safe house in itself, where audiences can bask in the protective glow of dashing intelligence agents moving heaven and Earth for the sake of beautiful women, freedom and justice, not necessarily in that order. This is also a chance to see Denzel Washington doing what he does best: blending wry machismo with a dollop of seasoned weariness plus some action moves that show off his biceps. The tight, stylish Afro he sports isn’t bad either.
Washington plays ex-CIA agent Tobin Frost, on Langley’s most-wanted list since he went rogue some years back and now suspected of sabotaging many missions, leading to the deaths of several field agents. Then Frost walks into the American Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, to escape from a band of mystery mercenaries. The CIA gleefully takes him into custody and shunts him off to a safe house for roughing up and interrogating. So far, so typical CIA movie.
The story takes a turn when the safe house is “compromised” and the aforementioned mercenaries show up to kill everyone in sight. The only two who escape are Frost and CIA rookie Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), whose job had been to mind the house. Weston is given orders to protect Frost and escort him back to the United States, an assignment that tickles Weston pink, because all along he had been hankering for something more strenuous than answering phones and looking at walls.
Up to this point, there’s a nice balance of action and dialogue, though nothing that happens is unexpected. After this, however, the story unravels and turns into a series of overly long action sequences strung together in a continuous blur. Chaotic, noisy and inelegant, it’s unworthy of its cast (especially Washington, who imbues Frost with much more nuance than the story merits) and its exotic Cape Town location.
Frost and Weston are on the run 24 hours a day, which means they’re either ducking their heads into cars or rolling out of them amid a shower of bullets, or running across intersections or down narrow corridors, or panting on stairwells, and so on. Not a spare minute to sit down for coffee, hatch a plan or explain what the hell is going on. It never lets up right until the end, so character development doesn’t get a look-in. OK, we get that the CIA has awesomely cute guys with great bods working for it (keep an eye out for the seasoned Sam Shepard playing a top-level honcho). And that’s about it.
According to cinema pundits, action movies of the 21st century are bound to get more action-packed and not much else, since it’s become impossible to hold the attention of the smartphone-addicted public for more than a few minutes at a time. In that sense, “Safe House” makes it safe for everyone: an insulated cocoon of harmless entertainment requiring very little commitment from the viewer. Tough luck for the CIA.