Like you’d expect from a title with the word “safe” within it, Safe House plays it as safe as you can in regards to its plot. If you’ve seen one government/CIA conspiracy thriller before, you’ve seen this film. The good guys might not necessarily be good, the guys on the run from the good guys might actually be the people to root for, and so on. The government is pretty much always evil, anyway, or at least some aspect of it is.
The only thing I can see to possibly differentiate Safe House from other films using this basic premise is the way that it was shot and put together. In most of these films, you always have a pretty good idea about what’s going on. The characters are engaged in a gunfight? Okay, we’re going to see them shoot at each other. This film tries to be special by obscuring every single action scene in one way or another (or in every way possible, in some scenes).
Let’s give you an example. Two fights are going on simultaneously. The first involves a one-on-one fistfight, while the other is a two-on-one battle with guns involved. These scenes are cross-cut against one another, often with much rapidity. They are both lit in a way so that they are as dark as possible with you still being able to tell that there are bodies and they are moving. When not cutting from one scene to another, we’re having cuts within one fight every 1-2 seconds, if that. And we have the shakiest handicam imaginable, because that’s “immersive.”
If you’ve followed along so far, then congratulations. If not, then imagine what you’re feeling now, and then imagine feeling that while watching the movie. What Safe House wants to be is a Bourne film, except those movies worked because they weren’t as darkly lit, the shakycam wasn’t too much of a burden, and while the editing was quick, it wasn’t too quick so as to confuse the audience. We always knew who was kicking whom, or who was in front during the car chase. The same is not true with this movie. All throughout the scene I just mentioned (I didn’t just make it up — this is an actual scene in this movie), I was trying to figure out exactly what was happening, and if the film had ended right after the fight, I wouldn’t have known who won.
There is a plot, and it’s as predictable as you might expect. We begin with the tedium that comes from not being trusted by the CIA. Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is tasked with being a “housekeeper” of a safe house located in South Africa. He has a girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), whom he loves, and his boss is played by Brendan Gleeson. He also gets to sit around all day with no real danger or trouble. He seems to have it all, but still complains that it’s not enough. Perhaps Safe House is really a cautionary tale about what happens when you’re not satisfied with having everything.
That’s giving it more thought than is deserving. Eventually, a man named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is brought to the safe house, it gets attacked by some random group of soldiers, and Matt and Tobin have to escape while the rest of the people inside the safe house are slaughtered. Matt and Tobin go on the run — the latter is generally in handcuffs — and while they’re not exactly friendly, Tobin, a rogue CIA agent, understands what Matt is going through, and gives him all sorts of important advice, and also tells him that the safe house location had to be given away by someone on the inside.
So, the suspects are basically narrowed down to three people: Brendan Gleeson’s character, the man who trusts Matt; Vera Farmiga’s, who believes that Matt and Tobin might have teamed up; or maybe Sam Shepard’s, as he’s the highest-ranking character we get to see. It turns into a two-person race as we progress, as Shepard disappears and leaves Glesson and Varmiga to duke it out. That’s almost a literal statement, as they’re constantly in disagreement with one another and I thought that punches might eventually be thrown. No luck, I’m afraid, although that might have spiced things up.
We can’t suspect Tobin, even after he escapes from Matt’s custody. It’s just too hard to believe that Denzel Washington would be a bad guy, especially with the way he’s played here. Now, Denzel has proven himself a great actor, but every single line he delivers in this film is in the most monotonous voice I believe he can use. He has no emotion, and seems neither sinister nor like a villain. It seemed as if here was half asleep during filming. Reynolds at least brings energy to the role, and the supporting cast, while underused, was just fine.
Safe House is a film that’s edited too frenetically, shot with too much shaky camerawork, and often set in dark locations so as to make sure we don’t see what’s really going on. It’s a combination of the three things you don’t want to do if you want your audience to be able to follow along with the action scenes, and this film decides to ignore logic and utilize all three. The plot is as basic as these things come, right up to the last twist, and Denzel Washington seemed as if he was asleep throughout the entire film. This is a film without a shred of creativity or originality, and it’s shot and put together so poorly that you can’t even follow the action.