MOVIE REVIEW: Even Denzel, cast can’t protect underwhelming ‘Safe House’

In this film image released by Universal Pictures, Denzel Washington is shown in a scene from "Safe House." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Jasin Boland)

In this film image released by Universal Pictures, Denzel Washington is shown in a scene from "Safe House." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Jasin Boland)

Safe House (PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

An action flick starring two former People Magazine "Sexiest Man Alive" winners (one of whom is also a multiple Academy Award recipient) being released in the dead of winter is the reddest of flags in a movie littered with mismatched buddy cliches and trite plot twists. If not for the two leads and four supremely talented character performers, "Safe House" would be a total waste of your hard-earned money and valuable time.

Denzel Washington stars as the oddly named Tobin Frost who, during a 15-year stretch in the late 20th century, was the most talented spy in the world. For reasons that are hinted at but never made clear, Frost "went off the reservation" in 2001 and became the world's most successful purveyor of stolen intelligence. For the right price, he'd unearth anything and sell it to anybody.

After living undetected in Germany for 10 years, Frost resurfaces in South Africa to purchase some damning data from a rogue British MI6 agent but is thwarted at every turn as he tries to flee. With zero options left, Frost turns himself in to the American Consulate in Cape Town seeking asylum which whips the big wigs at CIA headquarters in Virginia into a lathered frenzy. Why would the most wanted traitor in the world -- so adept at escape and survival -- give up so easily to people who will put him in jail for the rest of his life -- or worse?

Rather than get Frost back to the US pronto, the boneheads at the CIA decide to transport him to a nearby safe house for torture and questioning which, given his past, will be an exercise in futility. The house Frost is brought to is a generic free standing building in a densely populated urban area with slightly more security gear than your average convenience store. Overseen by rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) it is the ideal location for Frost to escape or to be taken down by a team of highly motivated assassins.

Though still green, Weston is an intelligent, driven, by-the-book agent who wants out of South Africa in the worst way. Once the Tobin situation arises, he is essentially promised by his supervisor David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) that the successfully handling of the operation will lead to bigger and better things.

Even though everything that takes place in the first act defies logic and probability, the necessary chemistry between Washington and Reynolds is firmly established and believable. For the duration, they trade spider and fly roles and develop their respective characters well.

As one of the very few leading men who can play the hero or the villain with equal conviction, this is the type of role Washington could play in his sleep. Frost isn't a blowhard or a sadist but more of calculating and ice-cold reptile, utterly devoid of compassion or emotion. Although Weston tries to play it cool, his inexperience often bubbles to the surface and he makes the kind of mistakes a seasoned pro like Frost will pounce on immediately.

In addition to Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick all deliver brief but superb supporting performances and turn the slight material they're given into minor gold. While the execution of the six major players is consistently top notch it is not nearly enough to overcome the shoddy screenplay by David Guggenheim and the generic, unimaginative direction of Daniel Espinosa.

Not content with strong character development, Guggenheim pads the story with either long lulls of talky non-action or rote chase and shoot-out scenes. As for the Swedish-born Espinosa, he's watched far too many flicks directed by the Scott brothers (Ridley and Tony -- both frequent collaborators with Washington) and relies too heavily on jerky camera movement, jump-cut editing and oversaturated film stock. With much of the action taking place at night and in rundown shanty town sections of Cape Town, too much of the film is just plain ugly and comes off like a low-rent version of "The Bourne Identity."

Given it is the only major adult-themed release coming out on the first post-NFL weekend of the year with two highly bankable leads, "Safe House" will likely rise to the top of the box office heap purely out of default. Do yourself a huge favor: skip this and go see one or both of two other current and far better action movies -- "The Grey" and "Chronicle." (Universal)