A safehouse is vernacular in the FBI/CIA/generic spy agency lingo for a location that’s kept ready always in case there is a need to house someone safely. Being the caretaker of a safehouse is among the most blase jobs there are in the intelligence trade.
For agent Matt Weston of the CIA (Ryan Reynolds) he’s spent a year of his life bored to distraction as the keeper of a CIA safehouse in South Africa. He has managed to form a relationship with a young doctor, but she’s going to move on to a job in Paris in the very near future and his chances of landing a CIA job in Paris range somewhere between slim and none.
His lack of action is about to be shattered when a former CIA agent named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) who went rogue almost ten years earlier turns up in South Africa.
He’s working a deal with a MI6 (the British Spy Agency) operative to get his hands on a file filled with extremely valuable information on a bunch of people who work for various other spy agencies. These members of the CIA, MI6 and BND (German’s foreign spy agency) will stop at nothing to prevent Frost from selling this file and exposing their treachery.
The attempts to kill Frost begin almost immediately after he very cleverly hides the file where no one will search for it and soon he is forced to seek refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town. When the CIA higher-ups at Langley learn that Frost has been reeled in, they order that he be taken to the nearest safehouse and held there while interrogators are flown in.
After the leader of this team attempts to get information from Frost by extra-legal means, the safehouse is breached by a group of heavily armed men. Soon only Weston and Frost are left and Frost convinced Weston that his best chance to survive is to flee. Taking Frost with him in tow, Weston does just that and after the prefunctory chase scene, manages to break free from his pursuers.
Weston contacts his friend and supporter among the CIA upper echelons, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) who is in a meeting with Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) who is overseeing this particular operation, Deputy Director of the CIA Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) and a group of other looped in agents and technicians who have access to some serious technology. Weston is ordered to maintain custody of Frost and report back in several hours while another team is flown in to take charge of his prisoner.
From here we are treated to a series of predictable cross and double-cross moment that one finds in any generic spy-thriller. Director Espinosa is capable of treating his audience to adequate action sequences, and manages to hold the viewer’s attention in spurts, but the taut feel of a really good spy-flick like the re-launch of the Bond franchise that was Casino Royale is absent. Guggenheim’s screenplay is pedestrian at best, and although he clearly understands the vernacular of the covert operative, he lacks the subtlety and light touch required to provide realism.
There is a lot in Denzel Washington’s performance that appears familiar and that’s because he’s obviously drawn on characters he has portrayed in prior films like Man on Fire, Training Day and American Gangster. Reynolds looks very realistic as the bored agent who finds that active field operations are nowhere near what he expected or was ready for.
There are some positives, as we weren’t treated to an extensive backstory as to why Frost went rogue, and the creative forces behind Safe House were able to resist the obvious impulse to make this a buddy/buddy pic. Frost is more mentor than anything else to Weston, warning him of what will happen to him if he is not careful.
Careful is what the audience should be, carefully considering alternatives to Safe House which doesn’t deliver on much of anything it appeared to promise, except a few action sequences.