Safe House, Denzel Washington is a badass; we know this because there is a scene in which he snaps a man's neck in a public restroom, during which a) Washington's face is an implacable blank slate; b) the action is shown from directly above, in a stylistically brash gesture of "look at me!" filmmaking; c) Washington is bathed in ice-blue light. Right there, those are three pretty unmistakable gestures not just of what we're meant to think of his character, but of Safe House entirely, namely that is is a really unimaginative action movie.
Is this a sin? Maybe not. Action movies, like romantic comedies, have reached a point where their very existence is predicated not on surprising the viewer or presenting any innovations of content or form, but with going through 90-120 minutes' worth of pre-packaged narrative complications with an ending that is palpably obvious by the one-quarter mark, if not, indeed, from the opening scene. That Safe House presents the same chase scenes shot in the same contrasty, over-saturated color scheme with the same over-Foleyed gunshots that resemble tiny nuclear explosions leading up to the same Shocking Reveal as God knows how many other movies have done over the years, then it's really only doing its duty by the scores of audience members who want to see it precisely because it is not in even the slightest degree challenging or inventive.
For the rest of us, Safe House is a whole lot of nothing: a movie that sits there, being absolutely no more and no less than it is required to be. Certainly, it's too busy to qualify as boring; it's too standard in every way to count as a failure on any level. It's just There.
The film takes place in Cape Town, South Africa, where not-getting-any-younger CIA operative Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) has been stuck for 12 months as the babysitter of a safe house, a secure location where, in time of need, the agency can send agents or detainees to be kept out of harm's way until something better comes along. In that year, Matt has seen exactly no activity, and he is just starting to figure out how bad this is going to end up being for his career, when something awfully big happens. Namely, the notorious and legendary ex-CIA turncoat Tobin Frost (Washington) has just turned himself in to the U.S. embassy in Cape Town, on the heels of a hand-off of a computer chip worth a hell of a lot of money to the right buyers going severly wrong; at this point, Frost has the chip implanted into his thigh, and a lot of people hunting for him.
It sort of writes itself from here: the bad guys raid the safe house and only Matt and Frost are able to escape, but the grizzled old traitor is too canny to let a young agent lead him by the nose, so the whole film is a double cat-and-mouse thriller: the gunmen hunting Matt and Frost while Matt has to keep chasing down and re-capturing Frost. Eventually, we find out exactly what was stolen and exactly why it turns out that Frost isn't the big nasty bad guy after all, which will come as a surprise to the very stupid and imperceptive; meanwhile, Matt keeps checking in with his immediate superior, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), who locks horns with his colleague Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga, for once failing to make something out of a nothing part), while they are held apart by their boss, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard). Which I mention solely because of the gaudy charm of how director Daniel Espinosa keeps reverting to leering close-ups of Gleeson and Farmiga every time there is a hint of corruption, presumably trying to cunningly foreshadow that one of them has a dark secret, but in practice screaming in letter for all to see "ONE OF THESE PEOPLE IS THE REAL VILLAIN, GET IT?" which is already redundant given that the genre-savvy will be pretty readily able to pick out the secret traitor's identity even before the film has bothered to indicate that there is a secret traitor.
Insofar as Safe House exists solely to move fast and be exhilarating, it frequently meets its goals. Espinosa makes absolutely no attempt to hide his theft of the Tony Scott playbook, right down to the pumped-up color scheme (one suspects his single conversation with cinematographer Oliver Wood consisted, in its entirety, of "pretend that you're Paul Cameron"), but since that playbook has resulted in more high-energy films than not, the upshot is that Safe House has the basic decency to move at a fairly breakneck pace. Indeed, sand out the cutaways to headquarters and the momentum-shattering bickering between Barlow and Linklater, and you would very nearly have a film that does not stop moving from the instant it picks up. Then add in its ersatz Bourne Ultimatum editing, with the significant proviso that unlike most of the films to ape that chaotic aesthetic of cutting along visual momentum and praying the audience can keep up, Safe House actually boasts a good deal of continuity, and you can actually determine what happens and when to whom; and then we have film that almost copies, in much reduced form, the balls-out pacing that this system provided to the Bourne picture.
At the very least, then, what we have is a movie that clips along; the only real problem is that it gives us absolutely no reason to care, and no characters to care about. Reynolds is far from his worst here, but he's simply too callow to hold his own against Washington, and even if that weren't the case, Matt Weston's life and problems aren't really worth our attention. Washington is worth our attention; he's not really playing a character so much as an attitude, but it's an attitude he projects awfully well, and the actor's incredible native charisma remains arresting no matter what else. Frankly, I think that it would have been enough to coast on nothing but that charisma, and just let us enjoy watching Denzel do Denzel, and allow that the plot mechanics are too predictable and unimaginative to deserve more than a minute's consideration. Instead, screenwriter David Guggenheim apparently concludes that we care about what's on that chip and what has been motivating Frost, and plays that scenario out with a deadly final 15 minutes that kill everything that has thus far made the movie worth watching.
Still, as empty calories go, Safe House has the merit of being painless - and that is not much of a merit, and I am surely not alone in finding it extra-hard to care about a movie that does nothing but move along quickly and fire off lots of gunshots, so soon after the genuinely dazzling Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. But then, if it were worth a damn, surely they've had found a better time to release it than mid-February, yes?