“He's sooo hot,” the woman sitting next to me at the screening of Safe House sighed to her friend as the film's opening images of Ryan Reynolds working out flashed on the screen. She then went on to fiddle with her BlackBerry for half the movie. Based on those two actions, she is, I think, this scattered but not totally disagreeable CIA conspiracy thriller's ideal audience: appreciative enough of Ryan Reynolds' body to accept a world-spanning espionage drama staked on his value as a boyfriend — and beyond that, not paying too much attention.
Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a junior CIA agent assigned to babysit a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. The house has gone unused for Matt's entire 12-month stay there, and he's dying to be transferred to Paris, where his adorable girlfriend Ana (French actress Nora Arnezeder) is scheduled to take a job in two weeks. But his boss (Brendan Gleeson) tells Matt he needs to prove himself.
Then an extremely high-value “guest” checks into the house: rogue agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington). Frost has apparently been trafficking in global intelligence secrets for a decade and has just survived an attempt on his life. He's escorted into the safe house by CIA agents who — to Matt's wide-eyed surprise — start water boarding their detainee as soon as he's “safely” inside. When the guys hired to kill Frost show up and interrupt the interrogation, Matt sees an opportunity to shore up his own cred and escapes the ambush with Frost in tow.
If Matt can deliver Frost into the CIA's hands alive, he'll get the promotion he needs to join Ana in Paris. If he can't, at best, he'll be dressed down and demoted; at worst, he'll be marked as a rogue agent himself and will not only have to run for his life, but will also never be able to see his girlfriend again.
One minor character refers to Frost as “the black Dorian Gray,” which elicits a chuckle precisely because the actor who plays him seems to be frozen in time in a bad way: Washington can do the “enigmatic” anti-hero posturing that constitutes the bulk of this role in his sleep. The only interesting acting in the film comes in the few sustained dialogue scenes between the film's two stars, in which Frost uses what he surmises about Matt's yen for domesticity to get inside his head, planting seeds that it's the loving, plump-lipped blonde, not the agency, that's truly worthy of Matt's loyalty.
Grainy and hyper-saturated, Safe House has the distinct look of deliberate “amateur” cinematography, taken to its abstract limit by Bourne series DP Oliver Wood's handheld, zoom-happy camera. Most of the fight and chase scenes register not as action, but as blasts and blurs of vivid color. Is this accidental or an acknowledgement that scrutability is not a paramount value of the contemporary action sequence? Either way, after one duel, Reynolds has a line of dialogue recapping his injury to the man who inflicted it.
This style works best when choreographed across vast canvases or in extremely contained spaces. Two scenes in which Washington evades his pursuers in high-tension crowds — one set at a soccer stadium and the other at a street protest — are highlights. In the tensest, most satisfying set piece, the camera stays tight on two men wrestling on the floor in a lock, each of them grasping for weapon-ready shards of the window they just smashed through.
As hinted first by that early instance of water boarding, Safe House turns into a vague critique of systemic government corruption, but the most telling aspect of that scene is not the torture Washington is subjected to, but the way Reynolds is captured reacting, the way-zoomed lens framed on his dreamboat lips, parted in incredulity.
This shot is one of several tying Matt's conscience to his physical beauty, and thus intermingling the urgency of his success defending old-school American values — or whatever — with his success as a romantic hero. A movie in no small part about the insanely high collateral body count of moral relativism, Safe House has its younger star sustain only one serious injury: to the gasp-inducing midsection he was sculpting in that first shot. Now that's a high-value target.