Generally, action movies are either lightweight, puffed-up macho-man vehicles or so cerebrally deep that it's almost impossible to follow the action. Despite having only a few directing jobs to his credit, Daniel Espinosa found a nice blend of chest-pounding bravado and smart storytelling to make "Safe House" entertaining on multiple levels.
"Safe House" could have been just another spy drama. The elements are all there: Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a novice CIA agent who's job is to run a CIA safe house -- a secret sanctuary for spies -- in South Africa. He's led a boring life during his 12-month stint, but that changes when rogue agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is brought to the facility.
The pair must go on the run when the secret safe house is compromised. This sets up the standard spy story: Which characters are telling the truth and which are lying?
What elevates this drama is Washington. Frost is a spy with a great gift for psychological warfare and uses that skill to manipulate his way out of most situations. It takes an actor like Washington, who is both believable as an action figure and as one of the smartest people in the room, to make the role work. You can almost see the wheels turning in the spy's head as he evaluates every weakness he can exploit.
Without such a smart core, "Safe House" would have ended up another mundane story of spy vs. spy.
Espinosa also gets a solid performance from Reynolds. He doesn't turn the young spy into James Bond when things go bad. The character is filled with doubt and confusion that finally gets trumped by his determination and dedication.
The film is shot in such a way that the color is washed out. It's an interesting visual, but it does so little to set the tone and plays more like a gimmick than a viable shooting style.
David Guggenheim's script is smart but not overly clever. In a world where everyone's a suspect, he throws in just enough red herrings that when the real villains are exposed, it's a surprise but not a shock. There's a love story element, but that's quickly brushed aside and only resurfaces as a reminder that even spies have feelings.
In a film world where brain and brawn rarely meet in an action movie, "Safe House" proves that it is possible to have it both ways.
"Safe House," rated R for language, violence. Stars Stars Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Running time: 114 minutes. Grade: B Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6355. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.