Safe House - Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington
CIA rookie Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) and renegade former agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) are on the run in Cape Town, South Africa © 2012 Universal Studios

This high-energy action thriller is so fast paced and good looking it transcends a familiar “deliver the captured bad guy against all odds” plot. Hyper-violent, relentlessly tense and shot in sometimes gritty high-contrast, Safe House makes slickly robotic fare like last month’s passionless Haywire look positively wimpy.

Denzel Washington gets top billing as renegade former CIA agent Tobin Frost, who has been selling state secrets to international high bidders since going rogue. But Ryan Reynolds is the movie’s unexpected most valuable player, nailing the role of dedicated but overmatched rookie agent Matt Weston. Considering that Reynolds’ last two outings were the crude comedy The Change-Up and the embarrassing superhero flop Green Lantern, his smirk-free performance here is a welcome surprise.

The frustrated and promotion-craving Weston has been minding an otherwise unstaffed CIA “safe house” facility in Cape Town, South Africa, for a year. His everyday monotony of waiting for the phone to ring is broken when the traitor Frost is captured and brought to the safe house for interrogation.

Safe House - Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard
Branch Chief Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) and Deputy Director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) try keeping tabs on the situation from the CIA's US headquarters © 2012 Universal Studios

Horrified to witness the prisoner being waterboarded, Weston is still naive enough to ask “is this legal?” When a heavily armed gang of mercenaries blasts their way in and makes quick work of the CIA team led by bearded hardass Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick), Weston manages to sneak Frost outside. He spends the rest of the movie trying to keep Frost alive and in custody long enough to get him to a different safe house on the other side of the city.

Reynolds succeeds in his role by never making the inexperienced Weston seem goofy or stupid. He’s obviously in over his head, but is determined to prove himself, even when that means disobeying a direct order to stand down. Complications ensue when he figures out that somebody on his side must be supplying information to his persistent pursuers.

That storyline may sound generic, but screenwriter David Guggenheim manages to make the material work by keeping momentum-breaking dialog scenes to a minimum. Even the inevitable heart-to-heart bonding moment between Weston and Frost is scripted well enough that it doesn’t seem too “watch me act!” awkward.

Director Daniel Espinosa delivers multiple metal-crunching, high-firepower car chases that feel brutally realistic. He also manages to make several frantic foot pursuits feel fresh, especially one that takes place across the flimsy roofs of a crowded night-time shantytown.

Washington plays the appropriately named Frost with coolly professional detachment that’s the opposite of Weston’s overheated anxiety. Frost is the kind of self-confident seen-it-all iceman who calmly strolls into a crowd to escape hired killers instead of running from them. As for whether an agent in his mid-50s really could outfight a series of younger adversaries in hand-to-hand combat, an admiring document forger (Rubén Blades) describes him as “the black Dorian Gray.”

Supporting players include Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Brendan Gleeson as agitated CIA higher-ups who try keeping tabs on the South Africa action from the agency’s headquarters near Washington. Nora Arnezeder (Paris 36) is Weston’s French girlfriend, a nurse who has no idea what Weston does for a living.

Much better than audiences may expect, the stylish and high-bodycount Safe House sets a high bar for this year’s shoot-’em-ups to match.

[Rating: 4 stars]

Safe House is released in theatres on February 10, 2012

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.