Denzel Washington goes rogue

The Academy Award-winning actor sticks it to the CIA in Safe House.

Safe House adheres to the spy flick formula — combining danger, betrayals and bone-crunching combat in the service of a story that takes us nowhere we haven’t already been dozens of times before. How much you appreciate the movie will depend on whether you can overlook its ridiculous plot holes and be satisfied with what amounts to a series of well-done fight scenes.

Ryan Reynolds (The Change-Up, Green Lantern) plays Matt Weston, a rookie CIA agent earning his company bona fides as the sitter for a government safe house in South Africa, where he waits around for something big to happen. When something big goes down, his first assignment is to secure the premises for Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a renegade agent who took shelter at the U.S. embassy when would-be assassins got too close while he was attempting to trade government secrets.

After a gratuitous water-torture session that Frost easily withstands, shit gets real. The swarthy bad guys pay them a visit, killing a small team of government interrogators and leaving Weston to protect and secure Frost all by his lonesome.

Back at Langley, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and head honcho Sam Shepard monitor the situation by pacing around a command center where supporting players spout exposition and bad-guy profiles are displayed on wall-sized computer screens.

Washington inhabits Frost as he does most of his action-oriented characters — cynical, smart and proud of it. With his skewed sense of justice and corrupted worldview, he’s not all that far removed from Training Day’s Detective Alonzo Harris. Reynolds brings intensity and emotional depth to Weston, who makes up for his lack of experience with determination and quick thinking. But in the characters of Frost and Weston, Safe House promises more than it can be bothered to deliver. It teases us with the prospect of a wormy psychological tension that never develops.

The movie, with its slightly blue-orange palette and deep contrast, looks gritty, and director Daniel Espinosa handles the fight scenes well. In these respects, Safe House resembles a Tony Scott film. Though Espinosa efficiently moves the action along, he adds little else. But he doesn’t have much to work with. For CIA intrigue, political gamesmanship, and mindless thrills, rent Scott’s Spy Game instead.

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