From its swirling action-driven trailer, Safe House suggests a Tony Scott rip-off, as if director Daniel Espinosa had purposefully crossbred Man on Fire‘s hallucinatory visual grit with Spy Game‘s teacher/student plotline. But while surface similarities to Scott’s aesthetics abound in the film’s more fragmented action scenes, it’d be unwise to dismiss Safe House as merely a clone of the director’s manically inclined vision. In fact, Espinosa’s grizzled and bloody tale of post-9/11 rage exhibits an interest in the human cost of national deception and corruption that’s missing from Scott’s work. Even when it veers into familiar narrative territory, the instinct and durability of its characters propels Safe House toward an unspoken sense of resolve, defining it as a modern-day western dedicated to the classic tango between spoken threats and sudden bursts of violence.
The gunslinger at the heart of Safe House is Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a notorious super spy whose disappearance a decade ago sent the entire C.I.A. community into an uproar. Ghostly and smooth, Frost is another one of Washington’s omniscient cinematic warriors, a cunning cipher who reveals deeper character threads as his mission unfolds. In the film’s early moments, Frost pops up in pristine Cape Town to purchase a computer chip containing damning intelligence that he plans to sell to the highest bidder. When the deal goes south and spills out into the crowded city streets, Espinosa’s camera jump cuts blocks at a time trying to keep up with the kinetic movement of car chases and gun battles. Cornered by a lethal hit squad, Frost enters the local U.S. consulate as a last resort, only to be hauled off to a local safe house for debriefing.
Waiting for Frost and his Black Water-style handlers is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a young C.I.A. “housekeeper” hoping for a transfer from what he deems to be a boring post, which basically amounts to extended guard duty. When his safe house suddenly comes under attack by the same band of assassins, Weston takes responsibility for Frost himself despite a complete lack of field experience, first as a survival tactic, then as an opportunity to break Langley’s glass ceiling. The scenario is familiar: Professional badass outwits fresh-meat recruit time and again, giving the latter a crash course in behaving very badly. But there’s something about Safe House‘s sobering details, the scenes in between the impressively staged shoot-outs, that echo the film’s western motifs.
Throughout the breakneck, single-trajectory story, which includes lengthy action set pieces inside the massive Cape Town Stadium complex and the Langa township, Frost and Weston meet up with a mosaic of great supporting characters—Liam Cunningham’s suspicious MI6 agent, Brendan Gleeson’s menacing C.I.A. case officer, Rubén Blades’s wise document forger, and Robert Patrick’s gruff military contractor—who populate mostly dialogue-driven scenes that give subtext to Frost’s hidden agenda. Weston’s violent indoctrination into this world, and eventual immersion, is best highlighted when Frost tells him, “You practice something a long time you get good at it.” That quote eventually comes to fruition late in the film during a striking hand-to-hand battle between Weston and another “housekeeper” (Joel Kinnaman); it’s one of those bloody knuckle brawls that shatters every window and perforates each wall. As Frost watches calmly from afar handcuffed to a pipe, Weston is battered from one side of the frame to the other, very much a player in this grim western-like world and no longer a bystander. Safe House makes its intent quite clear in this dynamic moment, and earlier when Frost tells Weston, “I only kill professionals.” There’s a level of respect that must be earned to play in this gritty sandbox, and Weston doesn’t just learn the rules of the game; he dissects them.
Even if Safe House turns especially silly in its final attempt at social justice, the film achieves something rare for a Hollywood action film: depth of purpose. Whereas Tony Scott swoops around his blue-collar martyrs with the same pirouetting camera moves, Espinosa lingers on the aftermath of the destructive acts that his sequences depict. Each character’s hands are bloodied (either literally or figuratively) at some point in Safe House, and no matter the outcome that stain feels as if it will be permanent. “The truth is too messy,” a character says late in the film, and Safe House isn’t afraid of justifying that quote one bullet at a time.