Safe House is a high-concept blockbuster that ultimately feels like a composite mish-mash of ideas and sequences from superior productions. Sturdy turns from Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds alongside slick camerawork elevate proceedings, but fail to overcome increasingly shoddy execution.
The premise capitalises upon the current star power wielded by the two actors by pitting them against each other in a battle of brawn and intellect. Reynolds portrays Matt Weston, a fairly raw CIA operative who suddenly has to deal with safeguarding Washington's suspected criminal and former government agent Tobin Frost in a supposedly secret location in South Africa.
Unsurprisingly, this facility turns out to be as safe as a vagina near Frankie Cocozza. For rebel soldiers are desperately seeking something of mass importance belonging to Tobin, forcing Matt to take his prisoner onto the dangerous streets in a bid to evade capture. But can the two men trust each other despite their safety depending on it? And how did the rebels find out where this 'safe house' was so easily?
For its first half hour Safe House works brilliantly, fusing breakneck storytelling and sufficient characterisation with a rip-roaring car chase and a scintillating 'base under siege' scenario. Then comes a derailment not witnessed since Denzel Washington's Unstoppable. The plot becomes consumed with tired and tedious conspiracy theories, the character development becomes very predictable and the potential of using South African terrain for the basis of a 'cat and mouse' caper is left unfulfilled.
Cries of "MOLE" will be leveled by any attentive viewers towards several supporting caricatures characters in a manner akin to Austin Powers's unfortunate treatment of poor Fred Savage. That trait - alongside the bulk of the narrative revolving around a government agent having to protect an enemy of the state for the country's greater good - conjure up strong echoes of the far more compelling 24 series.
Several brutal combat sequences highlight why 'Bourne' now effectively serves as an adjective in film criticism, such is the shaky handheld nature of depicting such sequences to give them immediacy and modernity. To his credit though, director Daniel Espinosa shows enough visual flair in this department to suggest that he will helm more blockbusters in the future.
Espinosa also handles the lead actors well, giving both Reynolds and Washington enough time and space to make their mark in the dialogue-laden scenes amidst the set pieces. The former delivers an accessible hero who is easy to root for, while the latter exercises excellent restraint to create an intriguing figure who remains calm amidst the chaos ensuing around him. Yet despite early promise, neither character emerges as a compelling figure, with the fault lying in an increasingly clumsy and lazy script.
What made the aforementioned likes of 24 and the Bourne franchise so effective was their taut nature. In contrast, Safe House squanders a great deal of time in the latter half with runarounds that do little to advance the plot, stale gunfights and various signposted twists that bear little impact. Furthermore, as various high-level government bods who become progressively more prominent, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard are all done a disservice as they serve as mere plot functions and/or red herrings.
As entertainment, Safe House is functional enough because of the assured presence of the two stars and the director's keen eye for clarity during the action sequences. But it's hard not to leave the cinema feeling disappointed, as the movie slowly deteriorates from a strong opening that promised a great deal more.