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Review: Safe House (2012)

Safe House (2012)

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Premise: A young CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) must go on the run with a fugitive (Denzel Washington) when his safe house is attacked.

What Works: Safe House is led by Ryan Reynolds in the lead role and Reynolds is good. The early parts of the story give him some very human moments with his girlfriend (Ana Moreau) and his mentor (Brendan Gleeson) and if these subplots had been followed and developed properly the story could have led to interesting places.

What Doesn’t: Spy thrillers like Safe House generally operate by establishing a MacGuffin, an object that the characters in the story compete over. The lead character in these films usually tries to recover or deliver the MacGuffin to a safe space while trying to uncover the truth but constantly finds the loyalty of his allies in question and must sort through red herrings, overcome obstacles, and satisfy conflicting agendas. Safe House does not manage to do any of this successfully. The film establishes its MacGuffin but it is never clear what it is or why people are killing each other for it. That immediately hobbles the film; it never has any urgency about the conflict and there is no compelling reason for the viewer to care about how the conflict turns out. What’s worse is that the film never sets out a destination or a goal. A car race is exciting based on how close the contestants are to the finish line and how fierce the competition is for first place. Safe House is also a race but there is no coherent finish line that the characters are racing toward and so the middle of the film is largely aimless. The body of Safe House’s story has a lot of down time and this section should be used to build the relationship between the young CIA agent and his prisoner but neither one of these characters is interesting enough to carry the film. The picture lays out some interesting exposition about Reynolds’ character at the start of the film but this is dropped early on in the story’s second act and it never comes to bear in a meaningful way. The main conflict between Reynolds and Washington’s characters is rarely interesting. Washington’s character is intended to be an antihero and a subversive mentor to the younger man but for most of the film Washington is either sitting around looking smug or walking in tow with Reynolds. There is no push and pull to their relationship. At no point does Reynolds mentee learn from Washington’s mentor (or vice versa) nor do they struggle for psychological dominance and the characters and their relationship is fundamentally the same at the ending as it is at the beginning. Safe House suffers similarly in the administrative characters played by Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson. The film attempts to set up a mystery in which one or both of these characters sabotage the operation and attempt to kill Reynolds and Washington’s characters. But both Farmiga and Gleeson are too departed from the action and by the time the story maneuvers them into the battlefield it is too late to build a convincing mystery. 

Bottom Line: Safe House is an underwhelming thriller. Although it has a number of talented actors in the cast, the script just does not give them anything to do. The mystery is too muddled and the picture wastes an interesting premise.

Episode: #376 (February 19, 2012)