SAFE HOUSE is a curiously subdued film relying more on the charisma of its leading men, Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, and on psychology rather than bombast for its suspense. The result is a film that occasionally becomes too languid for its own good, but is generally entertaining enough with an earnest style of gravitas to overcome those lapses.
Washington is right at home playing Tobin Frost, a crack CIA agent who went rogue a decade or so ago for reasons that the Agency never figured out. A master manipulator, Frost has turned himself into the United States consulate in Cape Town, South Africa after a deal goes very wrong. The timing couldnt be better for Matt Weston (Reynolds), a newish agent tasked with babysitting a safe house that sees little action. Weston dreams of a more interesting posting in a more interesting city, and it all seems to be within his grasp when Frost is taken to Westons safe house. It becomes a nightmare when the safe house is invaded by armed insurgents and Weston is forced to take it on the lam with Frost.
There are chases aplenty, but determinedly realistic, with crashing metal and desperate choices rather than slick moves and pyrotechnics. The gritty pseudo-realism is underscored by a purposefully skittery hand-held camera and a slight overexposure that tinges everything on screen with the ugly yellowing of florescent lights.
Reynolds Weston radiates a disarming sort of innocence as well as nervousness that ingratiates him to the audience, and perhaps to Frost as well. The scripts greatest asset is that what the relationship between the two of them is stays an open question. Frost is obviously capable of anything, so that when he remains in Westons custody, it is never quite clear who is in charge of the situation. Its far more interesting that the conflict back in Washington between Westons boss (Brendan Gleeson), who is giving Weston the benefit of the doubt when things look criminal for him, and the functionary (Vera Farmiga), who is ready to lump Weston in with Frost with nothing more to go on that circumstantial evidence.
As the plot thickens, loyalty becomes so much stuff that dreams are made on. Ironically, Weston is forced to go rogue with Frost, who chose to go rogue so many years before, leading to a peculiar yet credible bonding that has nothing to do with bromance and everything to do with survival, though the question of whose survival is in play, like so much else, is played for the suspense, not the obvious. Violence erupts suddenly with a visceral brutality. In contrast, Frost is never rattled, his voice remaining calm and measured whether delivering a threat, offering encouragement, or the most damning of insults. Thus he also remains a cipher to Westons determined idealism.
SAFE HOUSE revisits the familiar territory of corruption in high places, the expediency of the moment, and keeping ones soul while defending ones principles. Such as the lovely and considerate touch of black-ops interrogators going to the trouble of using bottled water, not tap, for their waterboarding of Frost. Moderately thought-provoking, nicely if not overly sharply spun, and serving up fine performances from pros, it will not make jaws drop, at least not too often, but offers up fine workmanship from all involved.