If the measure of a thriller’s success goes by the adrenaline-gland–agitation scale, Safe House has it going on. Taken on a more discerning basis, as a challenge of blending startling action sequences, brain-rattling chase scenes, and shoot-’em-upping with the subtler intricacies of narrative logic and character development, things get dodgy. Basically, this CIA-themed suspense number gets high marks for effect and low marks for effort, but it’s a watchable-enough lark in this part of the moviegoing year when we lower our expectations.
One of its selling points, clearly, is the Denzel factor. Denzel Washington, an actor from his own school of cool, plays both with and against type here, as an anti-hero whose backstory we assume is more complicated than that of the once star CIA agent who “goes rogue.” His character, carrier of a super-hot cache of incriminating info, lures a posse of extra-badass bad guys in hot pursuit around Cape Town, South Africa, and gets drawn into a precarious cat-and-mouse game with the formerly bored and now endangered CIA newbie, played by the handsome and often befuddled Ryan Reynolds.
Potential conditions for a good film are in place in this, Swedish director Daniel Espinosa’s first Hollywood production. He opts for a jittery, semi-documentary style, and the jangly editing rhythms succeed in avoiding slickness or predictability. Kinetic mayhem is a repeatable norm in the film, to a distracting degree. Rubén Blades and Sam Shepard show up in the cast, as do Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson — so dazzling and beautifully potty-mouthed in The Guard, and here squirming nicely on the line between good and evil.
But still and all, the delicate balancing act of the suspense genre game never quite works, and the all-important mixology of plot content/backstory and pulse-quickening action has a sour taste to it. In the end, what could have been another sordid tale from the moral house of mirrors and accountability vacuum that is the CIA instead feels like a rickety roller coaster of a movie, albeit with a few thrills and moments of Denzel mugging along the way.