Safe House: Can Denzel Washington Ever Be a Bad Guy?

In this efficient spy chase film, the star plays a CIA rogue who messes with Ryan Reynolds' pretty mind

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Universal Pictures

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington

Just about every government in the world wants Tobin Frost dead. A top CIA operative who went rogue a decade ago, Frost has been an embarrassment to the agency higher-ups, who can’t stop or find him. So they are pleased and a little edgy when Frost, running for his life from some ruthless, nameless commando force, surrenders at the U.S. Embassy in Cape Town, South Africa. Taken to a safe house, he is subjected to a brisk waterboarding by the local CIA chief; apparently our authorities still thinks the technique works. A moment later, the commando squad breaks into this very pregnable fortress and kills everyone not billed above the title: the rogue warrior Frost and the low-level keeper of the safe house, Matt Weston. Now the bear and the fawn are on their own. Expect Frost to mess with Matt’s mind as Hannibal Lecter did with Clarice Starling’s.

There’s one important wrinkle in Daniel Espinosa’s just-above-routine spy thriller Safe House: Frost is played by Denzel Washington. Can the actor impart satanic humor to a standard bad-genius role, which would be catnip for other Hollywood stars in their mid-50s like John Travolta and Bruce Willis? Not hardly. Washington, since he turned to action roles in mid-career, has been the pure or scarred hero, often enigmatic but rarely villainous. A Safe House colleague refers to Frost as “the black Dorian Gray,” and Washington, at 57, looks fit and fine. But it’s the quiet grandeur, the imperious glower that set him apart. Almost uniquely among contemporary actors, he doesn’t show his sunny side. The characters he plays think life is no joke. Like Thomas Hobbes, they find it “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.”

(MORE: See Mary Pols’ review of Washington in Unstoppable)

That sullen majesty has made Washington, according to an annual Harris poll, the only actor chosen as one of the top three of favorite movie stars over the past six years. This year he was tied for second, with Clint Eastwood, just behind Johnny Depp. (The Harris voters like their stars mature: John Wayne, dead since 1979, finished fifth this year.) Washington was also the No. 1 star among pollees who identified themselves as Democrats. They might be wishing that Barack Obama had some of Washington’s grit and vinegar.

Matt, Frost’s reluctant protector in Safe House, is played by Ryan Reynolds, whose granite abs deserve their own security team. (Not wanting to disappoint his fans, Reynolds goes topless in the first few minutes.) In David Guggenheim’s script, Matt chafes at his menial CIA job as the safe-house landlord, and express his frustration by frequently hurting furniture. But at heart Reynolds is a bland Canadian, a dishier Brendan Fraser. Frost quickly spots Matt’s callow vulnerability: holding a gun to the young man’s head, he refuses to finish him off, saying, “I only kill professionals.” (Ouch, Matt must think: shoot me but don’t castrate me.) For the rest of the movie, which puts both men on the run from their assassins, Matt will sweat to prove he’s Frost’s kind of man.

Washington’s go-to director for action movies is Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable), with a stopover for Scott’s older brother Ridley (American Gangster). But he also had good luck with the Hughes brothers two winters ago in The Book of Eli. Here he taps Espinosa, a Swede whose 2010 drug-crime drama Easy Money revealed a ready-for-Hollywood flashiness.

(MORE: See Corliss’s review of The Book of Eli)

Espinosa directs Safe House very much in the Paul Greengrass action-film style. Like Greengrass’s Jason Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum), Espinosa’s film has several cramped-space fights, plenty of bird’s-eye point-of-view shots and a chic, garish color scheme. Same cinematographer too, Oliver Wood, but less of Greengrass’s obsessive shaky-cam — thank you! Espinosa also tweaks a chase-scene cliché, the one that sends a dozen tough guys tromping over the tin roofs of a far-flung urban slum (cf. Fast Five). This time, one of the chasers falls through to the living area below. Sometimes it’s a tonic when a fantasy caper provides a dash of reality (and gravity).

Safe House plows through its familiar twists with efficient brio and a distinguished supporting cast (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Rubén Blades, Robert Patrick). It’s a decent February movie that smartly extends Washington’s God-on-the-run character. But, and this hardly merits a SPOILER ALERT, the film hews steadfastly to the core credo of spy movies: that the CIA brass are remorseless smarties at the core of every international misdeed. (If they’re such brilliant scoundrels, why couldn’t they predict the fall of the Soviet Union, or 9/11? Or did they know, but — maniacal laugh — didn’t tell?) Politics aside, we hope a screenwriter will dare to consider the ultimate spy-movie twist: making the CIA top dogs heroes instead of fops and sociopaths.