Silver Screen: Safe House ***

Silver Screen: Safe House  ***
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Silver Screen: Safe House ***
Bryan Miller

Safe House has all the hallmarks of a generic action pic to drop into the dead zone of February. And it is. But strong performances from the two leads and a surprisingly more character-driven plot-- relatively speaking-- makes it a pleasant surprise, albeit a modest one.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Matt Weston, an ambitious CIA agent paying his dues by operating a safe house in South Africa. It's essentially a high-tech house-sitting job, at least until he gets his first “houseguest”: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a former agent who went rouge and has been selling state secrets on the international market ever since. After ten years on the lam, Frost turns himself into the American consulate to duck out of a double-cross.

Weston is supposed to prepare for the arrival of a team of interrogators (led by former Terminator Robert Patrick), who plan to use extreme measures to get info from Frost before he's extradited back to an official United States facility. But the plan goes awry when Frost's attackers learn his location at the safe house and launch an attack.

The wily Frost finds himself in an interesting bind: The only way he's getting out of U.S. custody is if he's sprung by the very men who came to kill him. As the situation deteriorates, it's Weston's job to keep Frost alive, but also keep him from escaping custody.

The battle of wits between Frost and Weston is the highlight of the movie, which ultimately sprawls in both location and scope, to its detriment. When the movie is in top form, it's a ballet of shifting alliances as Weston and Frost alternate between fighting, using one another, and teaming up. Despite the movie's mostly humorless tone, Reynolds and Washington conjure some dark comedy out of these exchanges. They're nicely matched. Reynolds, underrated perhaps because of his grownup Zack Morris looks, has an impressive range. Washington brings some real gravitas to a role that could have been even better if screenwriter David Guggenheim fleshed it out a bit more. There are shades of Hannibal Lecter in Frost, who is most fascinating when quietly calculating what is sure to be a grisly and effective strategy.

Safe House might have been truly memorable if Guggenheim and director Daniel Espinosa, making his Hollywood debut, had focused more on the mind games and, perhaps most importantly, stuck to the title location. Once the action spills out of the confines of the safe house, a certain tension is released and never regained, and it becomes simply an effective action thriller. It's more good than bad--  bolstered by a nice supporting turn from Brendan Gleeson, although bit players Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard have almost nothing to do-- but it still registers as a missed opportunity.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.