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‘Safe House’

By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Is any place less safe than a safe house? In the entire lexicon of movie locations, is any setting more likely to be visited by chaos and destruction on a biblical scale? Not very likely.

So it’s no surprise that the Denzel Washington-starring “Safe House” is a take-no-prisoners action extravaganza that doesn’t stint on either bullets or brutal hand-to-hand combat. It also shows how much can be done with a business-as-usual CIA-thriller script when it’s bolstered by effective acting and expert direction.

That directing is courtesy of Swedish filmmaker and top-drawer mayhem manipulator Daniel Espinosa, who’s been one of the hottest new names in Hollywood since his last film, 2010’s “Snabba Cash” (“Easy Money”), unofficially made the high-echelon studio rounds though it has yet to show itself on American theatrical screens. Even without “Snabba” as a reference point (it’s been acquired by the Weinstein Co. with no firm release date set), it’s easy to see what action junkie executives saw in Espinosa.

Working with the top-flight team of cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Richard Pearson, both of whom have “Bourne Supremacy” credits, Espinosa has given “Safe House” an unmistakably stylish and unsettling tone, characterized by probing camera work, quick and edgy cutting and a fine ability to keep audiences off-balance and wondering when they’ll get a chance to catch their next breath.

“Safe House” is grateful for all this pizazz because its David Guggenheim script is filled with standard-issue elements all pointing to the not exactly original notion that the intelligence community is a hotbed of corruption whose operatives eat betrayal for breakfast. Who knew?

For not the first time, locators like “Tuesday 1:53 p.m.” flash on the screen as people demand “Level 4 security” and insist to scurrying underlings that they “get a team in the situation room in five minutes.” Or else.

But as demonstrated by “The Help,” a very different kind of standard-issue project, good acting invariably ups the effectiveness of unprepossessing material. “Safe House” has a fine cast, including co-star Ryan Reynolds and potent supporting players Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard, but it is star Washington who sets the tone.

Though he is one of those actors who rarely sets a foot wrong no matter what the role, Washington has developed a special knack for dark-side portrayals that bring intensity and flair to films such as “Training Day,” “American Gangster” and this one.

Here the actor plays the especially chilly Tobin Frost, a renegade CIA operative who has spent the last nine years in activities so traitorous the man is “wanted for espionage on four continents.” (Antarctica is presumably not on the list.)

With his ice-cold smile and ability to snap necks the way lesser men twist off beer caps, Frost was “the best of the best,” an expert manipulator who literally wrote the book on the techniques of interrogation.

But while he’s in Cape Town, South Africa, on some especially nefarious business, Frost falls afoul of a mysterious group that is so intent on doing him in that he turns himself over to a very much surprised U.S. Embassy. Officials hurriedly consult with the CIA top brass back in Langley, Va., and then deposit Frost in the local safe house for questioning.

Ordinarily the most boring, empty place in town, the location is under the charge of decidedly junior CIA employee Matt Weston (a quietly effective Reynolds), who lies to his attractive girlfriend about his occupation while pleading with his stateside superior (Gleeson) to bring more excitement into his life. He is about to get his wish.

For that safe house, wouldn’t you know it, does not exactly live up to its name. Faster than you can say “heavy weapons fire,” Weston and Frost find themselves on the streets of Cape Town, lucky to be alive.

Though “Safe House” may be too violent and nihilistic for everyone’s taste, it does have several crackerjack action sequences, including bone-rattling car chases and an especially atmospheric pursuit over the unstable rooftops of hardscrabble Langa Township on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Desperate to prove himself to CIA bigwigs (played by Farmiga and Shepard) back home, Weston struggles to keep control of the situation while his nominal captive, master of mind games that he is, attempts to get inside the younger man’s head. If only Weston can get Frost to yet another safe house, headquarters tells him, he can write his own ticket. If only …

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