"SAFE HOUSE" — ★★★ — Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard; R (strong violence throughout and some language); in general release
He must have joined "The Agency" with an eye toward excitement, exotic locales and danger. But in Capetown, a backwater as far as foreign intrigue goes, agency newcomer Matt Weston is stuck — a one-man show, running a never-used "safe house" in the CIA's real-estate portfolio.
"I'm staring at four walls all day," Matt (Ryan Reynolds) complains to his boss.
Until the day he plays host to America's "most notorious traitor," a sell-to-the-highest-bidder rogue named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington). Frost doesn't want to be a "house guest." And a lot of ruthless and violent people want to get their hands on him in the worst way.
That's the set-up for "Safe House," a pulse-pounding secret-agent variation on the "everybody's out to get you" thriller formula. Well-cast, well-acted and brilliantly shot and edited, it's a thoroughly entertaining peek into spycraft and the spies who practice it.
Washington always relishes playing bad guys, and if Frost isn't "Training Day" over-the-top evil, he's still a formidable character. As bad guys swoop in and kill men guarding him, he plays mind games with his last surviving captor — Weston.
"Get out of my head!"
"Oh, I'm already IN your head."
"Housekeeper" and "asset" are on the run, blitzing through safe houses, "protocols" and the like. Back at CIA HQ in Langley, Va., those trying to figure out what Weston and Frost are doing (Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard) sputter jargon on a "need to know" basis — "extraction teams" needed here, a new NOC (nonofficial cover) for that agent there.
All of this is, of course, catnip to espionage fans. The water-boarding? Pretty graphic, and pretty abrupt. The "extraction team" turns to that, seemingly as a mere plot contrivance.
Swedish director Daniel Espinosa's visual take on South Africa is that Capetown could be any modern city, surrounded by more striking scenery. South Africans themselves are non-entities in the story, generic backdrop to the many chases and shoot-outs. That robs the film of its sense of place.
But the photography and editing are state-of-the-Bourne-art exciting — breathless chases, brutal, blurry fights and unnerving shoot-outs.
And Espinosa keeps this movie on wheels — or on its feet — with foot chases across the roofs of a shantytown township, and screeching car escapes through city streets where the new agent on the block must prove his mettle by keeping the pedal to the metal.
It's not Bond, or even Bourne, whose next installment is in the previews attached to "Safe House." But this team extracts a top-notch thriller from pretty thin material, spilling a lot of blood and roughing up a couple of very good-looking movie stars for the cause.
"Safe House" is rated R for strong violence throughout and some language; running time: 115 minutes