Safe House is one helluva ride. Man-on-the-run movies have always been popular. They carry the thrill of the chase, the drama of a man wrongfully accused, the natural ebb-and-flow of a road trip movie and the narrative equivalent of an ant, a magnifying glass and a sunny day.
The story follow a young CIA agent based in Cape Town, who is tasked with protecting a fugitive wanted by authorities in the confines of a safe house. As you may have expected the movie title is a contradiction and it's not long before the fugitive's cover is blown - forcing the two underground in an attempt to stay alive and determine if they can trust each other or the forces intent on rescuing, capturing or killing them.
It's not surprising that the thriller subgenre has become so prolific after legendary film-maker, Alfred Hitchcock, made it a signature element. Supporting the underdog, living the cat-and-mouse game vicariously in life-and-death situations makes it a truly exhilirating film experience.
Safe House has taken the fugitive fleeing from justice and simply doubled it for maxmimum effect. We're introduced to CIA agent Matt Weston (Reynolds), who is counting the clock, waiting for some action to justify his far-from-home post. In walks Tobin Frost (Washington), an international criminal wanted by the CIA, whose interrogation is interupted by an attack on the safe house - putting Weston in charge of Frost's recapture and delivery to authorities.
Safe House's co-leads are safe as houses. Denzel Washington has proven his professional consistency and quality, delivering predictably solid performances. Ryan Reynolds has proven his ability and versatility as demonstrated by the claustrophobic film Buried - a feature-length drama focused on his character in a coffin. They both live up to expectations in terms of the physicality of the action and in the intermittent drama.
In the wings, several seasoned supporting actors in Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Robert Patrick round off a solid ensemble. Each of these in-form actors weigh in, adding to the overall quality and level of performance, while giving Washington and Reynolds centre stage. Safe House isn't a showcase for supporting performances, but still draws quite heavily from the international acting pool.
Safe House is directed by Daniel Espinosa, whose film Easy Money gave studios a glimpse at his blockbuster potential. The director's flair for action is edgy and translates well into this thriller, keeping the intensity and pacing up without giving you a chance to look away with one of the best car chase scenes in some time.
The film is set in Cape Town, South Africa, one of the most beautiful and versatile locations in the world. The city has so much to offer, allowing the action to make distinct scene transitions on foot and by car. The story moves from the safe house to train stations, apartments, townships and farmlands with relative ease, using beautiful, vibrant Cape Town colours to provide a sense of continuity and locality.
As a South African and Capetonian, it's easy to say that the film-makers have done their homework. There are one or two funny local moments - Reynolds speaking Afrikaans and relocating the Cape Town train station to Green Point Stadium and remodeling it to look like a "subway". Bar one or two minor distractions, it has an authentic feel.
Safe House is backed by a solid ensemble of actors, charged by frenetic action sequences, directed with a Bourne edge and set against the beautiful city of Cape Town. At nearly 2 hours, it's a triumph that Espinosa keeps you on the edge of your seat with enough mystery to keep you captivated.
It may not have as much drama or thought-provoking depth as you would have expected, but this actioner certainly makes up for it with a gritty story that laces classic man-on-the-run constructs with a few surprises to make Safe House a solid genre entry without being overly predictable and playing it anything but safe.
The bottom line: Exhilarating