By Michael Phillips 2013-04-05

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 1/2 stars

Early on in the derivative but fairly absorbing blur titled "Safe House," set in Cape Town, South Africa, Denzel Washington's Tobin Frost, a spy in from the cold, is brought to a Central Intelligence Agency safe house so that he can be asked a few questions about the super-secret intel he has in his possession. Wordlessly, Washington sits in a chair, as a supporting player (Robert Patrick) prepares for the waterboarding, and in one five-second progression Washington smiles, drops his head, lifts it back up -- and his face has morphed into that of a man who has killed and will be killing again very soon.

The moment may or may not have been scripted, but you certainly appreciate it. You also appreciate how Swedish-born director Daniel Espinosa delivers harsh jolts a beat before you expect this car to smash into that car, or this character to calmly pull out a gun and murder that one. Editor Richard Pearson surely shares the credit for those jagged edges.

Make no mistake, though: No matter how much "Safe House" owes to the look, feel, concerns and cutting of Paul Greengrass' "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," it's closer in quality to a Tony Scott movie, of which Washington has made several. For all its lip service to the human cost of brutal espionage tactics and murky geopolitical allies, screenwriter David Guggenheim's movie wouldn't have a reason for being without its brutality. The carnage gets fairly absurd toward the end, just when you don't want your spy thriller to get that way.

Ryan Reynolds co-stars as Frost's handler, the CIA operative who has languished for a year in Cape Town, disguising himself as a health worker while bugging his boss back at Langley, played by Brendan Gleeson, for a better post. (Nora Arnezeder portrays his nominal French love interest.) Frost has been "off the grid" (the expression comes up a lot here) for a decade, but when an intel-for-cash transaction goes haywire, the wily ex-CIA star turns himself in and finds himself whisked off to the safe house. It is promptly attacked by mercenaries looking for Frost and his precious intel, and from there the film becomes an extended, frenzied action sequence.

Following the "Bourne" template, those muttering back in the CIA headquarters control room cannot control a damn thing. Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga lend easy authority to their basically functional roles. There's a bit of a mystery regarding for whom the mercenaries are working. But you can probably figure it out. I did, and that's saying something. Typically I am figuring things out in movies like "Safe House" even after the big revelation.

Director Espinosa shoots virtually everything in tight but wobbly close-up, and the human and vehicular combat often brakes right at the edge of visual incoherence. Just as often the brakes give out completely. Even at its most frantic and mechanical, the movie relies on Washington to provide a visual anchor, some sociopathic calm amid the storm.

MPAA rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language).

Running time: 1:55.

Cast: Denzel Washington (Tobin Frost); Ryan Reynolds (Matt Weston); Vera Farmiga (Catherine Linklater); Brendan Gleeson (David Barlow); Sam Shepard (Harlan Whitford).

Credits: Directed by Daniel Espinosa; written by David Guggenheim; produced by Scott Stuber. A Universal Pictures release.

Back to Movie Details

Movie News

President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room in Washington, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. The president claimed an array of successes in 2014, citing lower unemployment, a rising number of Americans covered by health insurance, and an historic diplomatic opening with Cuba. He also touts his own executive action and a Chinese agreement to combat global warming. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais )
Obama says North Korea hacked Sony, vows responseObama: Sony made mistake in shelving film under pressure by North Korea hackers; vows response
The Associated Press1 hour ago
HOLD FOR STORY -- This photo released by Magnolia Pictures shows, from left, Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren in a scene from the film, "Force Majeure," a Magnolia Pictures release. 9 films including, "Force Majeure," "Ida," "The Liberator," "Wild Tales," and others, advance in Oscars shortlist for best foreign film, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014.  (AP Photo/Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)
9 films advance in Oscars shortlist for best foreign film'Force Majeure,' 'Ida,' more, advance in Oscars shortlist for best foreign film
The Associated Press2 hours ago
Celebrities react to latest Sony hack developmentsCelebrities and others react to latest Sony hack developments
The Associated Press3 hours ago
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 1964 file photo, Mandy Rice-Davies waves goodbye at London Airport as she leaves for Munich for a singing engagement. Mandy Rice-Davies, a key figure in Britain's biggest Cold War political scandal, the “Profumo Affair,” has died. She was 70. Her PR firm said Friday Dec. 19, 2014, that Rice-Davies died Thursday evening "after a short battle with cancer." (AP Photo/File)
Key Profumo scandal figure Mandy Rice-Davies diesMandy Rice-Davies, key figure in Cold War scandal that rocked British politics, dies at 70
The Associated Press6 hours ago
This photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello in "Inherent Vice."  (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Wilson Webb)
The AP's top 10 movies of the year'Ida,' 'Boyhood' lead The Associated Press' top 10 movies of the year
The Associated Press9 hours ago
Movie News