- - Thursday, February 9, 2012

The producers of “Safe House” have done potential viewers exactly one favor: They’ve turned the movie’s title into a hint as to where it’s best viewed — in the safety and comfort of one’s own home.

“Safe House” is the sort of mostly competent but entirely skippable cinematic trifle that’s better enjoyed as a cable-matinee complement to an afternoon nap: You probably won’t be sorry if you see it, but you won’t be missing anything if you don’t.

Those who do venture out of their own domains will be treated to a ho-hum mashup of “Training Day” and the Bourne series that’s not as tough or engaging as either.

Like “Training Day,” “Safe House” pairs Denzel Washington in modern-day Col. Kurtz mode with an untested junior operative. Mr. Washington plays wanted man Tobin Frost, who’s brought to a CIA safe house in South Africa tended by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). When a team of heavily armed thugs takes out the squad assigned to guard and interrogate Frost, Weston takes the prisoner and heads out on his own.

Back in America, meanwhile, Weston’s CIA handlers — played by Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard — engage in a variety of Bourne-style bureaucratic scheming.

The inevitable twists and turns eventually reveal there’s more than meets the eye to the story’s various machinations, but also less.

Director Daniel Espinsa, in his debut American feature, clearly graduated from the Bourne school of shaky-cam action, and offers enough semicoherent shootouts and chase scenes to prove it. He manages to gin up a pummeling sense of impact — the movie subjects viewers to frequent headache-caliber crashes and smashes. But Mr. Espinosa can’t decide if he wants his violence to be sexy and cool or jagged and morally weighty, and he ends up trying to take credit for a bloody-minded seriousness he doesn’t earn.

Nor is Mr. Espinosa a terribly confident storyteller. “Safe House” is the sort of movie that frequently tells what it cannot show. It seems to feel obligated, for example, to have a character explain, for the benefit of the audience, that Frost is “known as an expert manipulator of human assets.” Yet the story itself provides little evidence of his alleged expertise: His scripted dialogue is limited to cutesy psychobabble; it’s clearly intended to get under the skin, but fails to break the surface.

It does, however, offer yet another commanding performance by Mr. Washington, who once again asserts an easy dominance over every scene, despite the fact that he’s essentially recycling the ticks and tricks that earned him an Oscar for his work in “Training Day.”

At this point, Mr. Washington’s abilities are well established, but even in reruns they’re still something to behold: He can fully fake out an antagonist — not to mention the audience — with a quick wink and half a grin. Despite his severely underwritten role, he manages to embody a host of fascinating contradictions, appearing powerful but measured, mysterious yet intelligent. He’s a strong performer, but also a smart one. Too bad he’s stuck in such a dumb movie.

★ ★

TITLE: “Safe House”

CREDITS: Directed by Daniel Espinosa, screenplay by David Guggenheim

RATING: Rated R for gritty violence, language

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes




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