Coming on the tail of another spy movie that was released recently, “Safe House” falls quite short of what might be expected after seeing “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” For an action film, however, it is just about right.
I had higher expectations for the film because it stars Denzel Washington, an Oscar-winning actor. But Washington and costar Ryan Reynolds were not given much to work with in the predictable script from David Guggenheim.
The movie starts out with what could have been an interesting storyline. Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a young CIA operative who is charged with watching a safe house in South Africa. He’s not allowed out in the field and he’s not allowed to do any real spy work. He watches the empty building for eight hours a day and then heads home to his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder.) He tells his supervisor David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) that he is ready for a shot at something more challenging, but Barlow tells him to sit tight.
Things change when Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) walks into the U.S. Consulate building in Cape Town with some precious cargo that has almost gotten him killed. He is a rogue CIA agent who has been out of touch with the agency for 10 years. He is known to be selling information to the highest bidders – regardless of what side they are one.
Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) wants to find out why Tobin turned himself in because she assumes for him to walk into the U.S. consulate, he must have some valuable intel he wants to protect. She and David set up an extraction team to take Tobin from the consulate to the nearest safe house – where Matt is waiting for some action. When the extraction team arrives, Matt is pushed aside and just allowed to watch as men begin to interrogate Tobin. They use extreme measures for which they ask Matt to cut the security cameras, but Tobin still doesn’t talk.
Because the cameras are cut, it takes a while for the men to realize their secret location has been breached. A group of men with guns have infiltrated the safe house even though no one is supposed to know where it is located. The breach is bad news for the extraction team since they are all killed as the enemies attempt to get to Tobin – these are the same men who were tracing him in Cape Town. Tobin persuades Matt that it is his job to keep Tobin safe and that means they must escape from the building. Matt gets Tobin out through a back entrance and puts the man in the trunk of a car. He calls Catherine and David to let them know what happened and that he still has Tobin with him. The higher ups want Matt to “stay off the grid” until another extraction team can get to Tobin.
While they are alone, Matt continuously tries to find out what information Tobin has and why he went rogue. Tobin offers a convoluted explanation that doesn’t really explain why he turned against everything he worked for. He warns Matt not to trust anyone and that the top agents will only let him do so much before they take over. Tobin says Matt will know he’s in trouble when someone tells him, “You’ve done a fine job. We’ll take it from here.”
The plan to lie low doesn’t pan out as the pair continues to be pursued by men who are intent on killing anyone who gets between them and Tobin. The next directive Matt gets is that he should locate a locker at the World Cup stadium that will direct him to a rural safe house where another team will come in to take care of Tobin. As the pair approaches the stadium, things go wrong when Tobin finds a way to escape. South African police officers take Matt into custody and do not believe that he is an undercover CIA agent. Matt’s image is broadcast as a fugitive.
Even after Tobin takes off, Matt continues to pursue him, thinking if he can bring the man in he will be able to get promoted to the kind of spy work he wants to do. He is even undeterred that the job requires him to send his girlfriend out of the country to safety. While Matt is pursuing Tobin, Catherine and David are getting pressure from their boss Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) to find out who is leaking information about Tobin’s whereabouts. Wherever he goes, the men who are pursuing him seem to show up. Catherine doesn’t trust Matt, but David stands by his protégé.
The movie has very little spying going on and instead is mostly made up of car or foot chases. There are a lot of shoot-outs and a lot of collateral damage. The information Tobin has and the people who are after him for it come out before the end of the movie, but for all the killing it seems anti-climatic.
For those interested in a spy movie where nothing is clear until the end, check out the remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” It’s a slower-paced movie with few shoot-outs but it offers much more dynamic storytelling.