A bantamweight spy thriller, "Safe House" has just enough bone density to emit some satisfying cracks and pops whenever the action gets going. If you need more than that -- like nuanced characters or sharp dialogue -- then you're in the wrong theater. If not, then you're good to go.
Ryan Reynolds isn't exactly stretching as rookie CIA agent Matt Weston, but he looks far more convincing in a zip-up gray hoodie than in that spandex "Green Lantern" suit. What gravitas there is in "Safe House" comes from Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost, a rogue agent who visits Matt's usually empty bunker (hence the film's title) for a shorter-than-expected stay. Washington's Frost has an intelligence that's always simmering, whether he's scratching his chin or snapping someone's neck.
First-time screenwriter David Guggenheim, a former Us Weekly editor, efficiently covers the bases. It's clear that Frost may not be all bad, so the film plays hide-the-villain by shuffling around various CIA honchos (serviceably played by Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard). To keep our heroes running, there's an ethnically vague assassin named Vargas (Lebanese actor Fares Fares). And Matt's pretty girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) is quickly ushered out so the boys can have their fun.
"Safe House" occasionally takes itself too seriously -- just because Reynolds starts crying over something doesn't mean we will -- but it's energetically directed by Daniel Espinosa, part of a new Scandinavian wave landing in Hollywood that includes his fellow Swede Tomas Alfredson ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy") and Iceland's Baltasar Kormákur ("Contraband"). If nothing else, it's a welcome sign of life during a mostly dull winter at the movies.
PLOT A CIA rookie and a crafty rogue agent are targets in a cat-and-mouse chase. RATING R (violence, strong language)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE A no-nonsense Washington and some crisply directed action give this lightweight spy thriller a little extra punch.
Swedish director doesn't play it 'Safe'
When Universal Pictures hired Daniel Espinosa to direct its rogue CIA agent thriller "Safe House," the studio knew it was rolling the dice. The Swedish filmmaker had never made an English-
None of that prepared executives for the first batch of footage Espinosa sent back to California from his "Safe House" set in South Africa last year. The director was shooting actors through partially closed windows and doors, his cameras weren't on anyone's face for more than an instant and the scenes didn't look as if they could make a coherent narrative.
"They said it looked like a French movie from the 1960s," the 34-year-old Espinosa recalled. "But that was exactly what I was going for."
Hollywood in principle loves recruiting fresh voices into its filmmaking fraternity and has been fond of importing directors from the independent film scene. But, "Safe House" producer Scott Stuber explained, "it's harder and harder in action movies to create moments that people are not expecting."
-- Los Angeles Times