Is there anyone who can play charming yet unsettling like Denzel Washington? Even when he’s not playing a legitimate anti-hero, there’s always a vague sense of threat from his characters, in the stillness of his face and the wryness of his delivery.
Written by: David Guggenheim
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga
Washington uses the trademark sociopathy to great affect in “Safe House”, the new spy thriller meant partially to re-charge Ryan Reynolds career after the “Green Lantern” disaster of 2011. Reynolds seems to exist mostly to get out of Washington’s way, the tactic followed by every white guy in a Denzel Washington movie which I like to call the “Ethan Hawke Defense.”
Matt Weston (Reynolds) at the beginning appears to have the un-sexiest job in the CIA, as a keeper of a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. He spends most of his time listening to French language tapes in an empty room, and telling elaborate lies about his work to his French national girlfriend. His uniquely boring life is upended when Tobin Frost (Washington) a former agent who’s been selling secrets for almost a decade, inexplicably wanders into a U.S. Consulate and allows himself to be captured (the trailer gives you a rough approximation of what will happen next).
Cape Town is shown in gritty, stunning glory, and director Daniel Espinosa makes the best use of location shooting I’ve seen in a long time. The city operates as both an ally and a potential enemy to the two fugitives, from its upscale downtown, to the chaos of Green Point soccer stadium, to the maze of a shanty town. There is very little politics in “Safe House”, but Espinosa doesn’t ignore the realities of Cape Town either, allowing the city to tell the story and add to the sharp realism of the action sequences.
The cat and mouse game at the heart of the story is a little played, and frankly most of it is stolen from other spy movies anyway. But the exquisite little details, ingeniously picked by the director and his stars, allow you to forget that this is a story that’s been told before: a spectacular crane shot of truck barreling through a shanty town’s throughways; the jaunty smile Frost gives when taking pictures of himself to add to a forged passport, the way Weston hugs his girlfriend and buries his face in her hair. The details make this movie special, make it more than just another Saturday-night throwaway picture. Washington’s charming villain is just the cherry on top.