A product born of the infamous ‘black list’ – the informal name given to what are allegedly the ten best screenplays currently sat idle – Swedish helmer Daniel Espinosa’s English language debut is a gritty, arresting tale of duplicitous double-dealing in the international espionage community. It’s one that doesn’t so much owe Paul Greesgrass’ Jason Bourne movies a wink and a nod as an all expenses paid weekend trip for two to Paris. Of course, despite what movies and TV would have us believe, most Agency folk aren’t Jason Bourne or Evelyn Salt. Hell, they’re not even Jack Ryan. Just ask Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a lowly, deeply frustrated “housekeeper” assigned to keep the lights on at one of those secret interrogation facilities that the CIA definitely doesn’t have, in a quiet, not particularly relevant (not lately, anyway) part of the world – South Africa – while dreaming of something more glamorous.

It’s not until Denzel Washington’s rogue operative, Tobin Frost, is brought by for a little casual torture, swiftly followed by an all-out, guns blazing assault by his pursuers that sees Weston fleeing for his life while simultaneously trying to keep Frost from escaping, that Weston realizes just how cushy he had it. It’s a blistering opening act that serves both as a visceral assault on the senses while at the same time handily establishes the movies’ parameters. Despite Safe House being basically standard issue spy thriller stuff – is there a traitor in the midst? You know there is – Espinosa proves to be a dab hand in the edit suite, while Bourne trilogy cinematographer, Oliver Wood, employs the same chaotically charged camerawork to which we have by now become accustomed. And the director is not above defying at least some conventional wisdom. This is not a picture in which being a name actor will protect you from a bullet to the back of the head – in fact it’s an outright liability.

Tasked with being a smooth operator, with a nice sideline in sage, backhanded mentoring, and perennially the smartest man in the room, Denzel is on autopilot with this. About to be waterboarded he flashes that famous grin before politely informing the goons that the towels they’re using aren’t the requisite thread count to truly be effective. It’s a fleeting performance that really makes you yearn for the man to stop dicking around with Tony Scott and go back to making real movies, or at least something with a little bite like Training Day. At times the dynamic of his seasoned professional matching wits with Reynolds’ tenacious rookie is oddly reminiscent of Denzel’s best work as Alonzo Harris. Only, while Denzel operating at half speed is still better than many actors at capacity, Ryan Reynolds is no Ethan Hawke to be sure, even if he has thankfully dropped his signature smartass routine for this one.

What prevents this slick, stylish cat-and-mouse chaser from accelerating towards something approaching greatness is a script plagued by indecision and beset by compromise. Billed as a double-header, the picture periodically shifts perspective between Frost and Weston, the pursued and the pursuer, when you get the sense that scripter David Guggenheim might have enjoyed greater success had he simply picked one character and stuck with them, for better or worse. And, given that in the beginning Weston’s primary goal for risking life and limb in perusing Frost off the grid is that he likely won’t get a promotion if he doesn’t, it’s hard not to see the stakes as a mess entirely of his own making.

Though Espinosa presents himself as a director in the Kathryn Bigelow mold, with a terrific handle on action, be it a car chase through the jagged maze of Cape Town or a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t stalk through a crowded soccer stadium, he doesn’t seem to know what exactly to do with his characters when the hail of gunfire dies down. Both Frost’s world-weary confessionals and Weston’s naked emoting as his ideals are systematically shattered seem unearned somehow. Ultimately, Safe House is a thriller that lacks the courage of its own convictions and tries to have it both ways, presenting itself as a worldly-wise, grubbily authentic take on a post-9/11 intelligence community run amok, but it bottles it in the final reel, opting for a feel-good tone at odds with everything that has gone before. It’s a dirty, morally bankrupt world, we’re told, but all it takes to set things right is a spark of conscience – and some handy incriminating evidence, of course. Well, perhaps we should ask Pvt. Bradley Manning how that worked out for him. Oh, that’s right, we can’t.

Blu-ray Special Features:

Extras include a making-of documentary, several production design featurettes detailing the coming together of the movies' many set-pieces and a locations scouting doc.

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