When it comes to leading men, Ryan Reynolds has everything that would make you think he ought to be front and center on a marquee. He’s good looking with a chiseled physique, has charisma to spare and a genuine screen presence. Unfortunately for him it just hasn’t quite translated to anything outside of comedy. Last summer a good portion of the lack of success for the Green Lantern adaptation was placed on his shoulders. And if Safe House was made to prove that Reynolds can hold his own in an action thriller, they shouldn’t have cast Denzel Washington opposite him.
Matt Weston (Reynolds) runs a CIA safe house in South Africa in which nothing generally happens. That is until one of the most wanted men in the planet, Tobin Frost (Washington), walks into an American consulate and is sent to Weston’s hotel for wayward spies. When a hit squad breaks in to their secure location and takes apart the squad assigned to protect Frost, it’s up to Weston to get Frost back into CIA custody as he goes on the run in Cape Town with his fugitive in tow. But Frost isn’t the most cooperative and as such a game begins between the two.
Shirking the buddy formula that usually happens between a cop and a crook, ala Midnight Run, it becomes an adversarial relationship between the two. Weston is inexperienced in operations and is out of his depth in handling it. Frost knows this and uses this to his advantage, getting the better of Weston in many occasions. The problem with the film, which operates in the same way Three Days of the Condor famously did, is that Denzel Washington at half speed completely overpowers Ryan Reynolds on the screen.
Washington is such a dynamic leading man in his own right that one imagines it must be difficult to act opposite of him in this capacity. It takes a special type of actor, like Russell Crowe, to really keep pace with him. Reynolds isn’t that actor and he looks completely out of place next to the iconic double Oscar winner. Reynolds wouldn’t be out of place in this film with nearly any other actor of similar stature; next to Denzel he’s being taken to acting school on many occasions. The few moments when he isn’t with Washington on screen he’s not completely out of place. Weston is the typical “rookie cop” type role, albeit as a CIA operative, and doesn’t feel out of place for the most part.
Washington isn’t anywhere near his best, as Frost is the sort of super-spy that only exists in film, but even at half speed Reynolds just doesn’t keep up. Washington has such a presence that Reynolds doesn’t rise to the occasion enough to keep up. Throughout the film Washington feels like a genuine movie star and Reynolds merely someone who’s just popular, to borrow a phrase from Chris Rock. Reynolds can’t match his presence or his charisma, of course, but he seems to shrink on occasions in which he needs to blossom.
It’s a shame because Safe House is an engaging spy thriller. Throwing in the usual twist in the end about double agents and whatnot, one that most should be able to see if you concentrate hard enough, Safe House also suffers from its rather interesting visual style. Daniel Espinosa takes a page out of Tony Scott’s book by trying to mix things up visually and using a shaky cam effect on many occasions; he’s not that good at it, unfortunately, and Scott’s influence on him is fairly obvious from that perspective. He’s a good story-teller though; for the faults of Safe House Espinosa has crafted an engaging story interesting enough to fit in with some of the better films of the genre.
Safe House is the sort of film that needs a powerhouse performance from a lead actor to keep up with Denzel Washington being his usual self. Unfortunately it doesn’t have it.
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Notable Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Nora Arnezeder
Writer(s): David Guggenheim