New spy flick ‘houses’ hardcore action, but the script plays it too ‘safe’

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

As America strives to “go green” and become more environmentally friendly, a lesson can be learned from, of all places, Hollywood. The major studios have, after all, turned recycling into a reliable cash cow, having been doing it longer and more efficiently than just about anyone.

Sometimes, the byproducts of all that recycling can even be entertaining! Shocking, I know.

Take “Safe House”. Riddled with clichés and ham-fisted in its death-of-innocence moralizing, the film nevertheless reveals itself an effective espionage-thriller with a strangely subversive sense of anti-action flick humanism and a less surprising but no less commendable anti-establishment attitude.

Our protagonist this outing is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, whose sad eyes and “Regular Joe” appeal make him sympathetic even when his character continually makes the most bafflingly dunderheaded decisions imaginable). He’s a hungry young CIA agent stuck with a dead-end assignment overseeing a rarely used, covert interrogation facility in South Africa.

Initially desperate for some excitement, Weston quickly learns that the tired old platitude “be careful what you wish for” is as true as it is trite when he gets a “house guest” in the form of Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, alternately channeling previous turns in “Training Day” and “The Bone Collector”), who “was one of the best CIA operatives we ever had, until he went rogue.” Natch.

When the security of Weston’s safe house is compromised and his back-up slaughtered by a team of mercenaries out to get their grubby mitts on the juicy confidential documents Frost has in his possession, Weston becomes responsible for Frost as the two go on the run.

Trying to lay low on foreign soil while surrounded by hostiles proves no easy task, and, as it becomes increasingly apparent that no one else can be trusted, Weston and Frost come to begrudgingly rely on each other for survival.

Attempting to craft a powerful parable of disillusionment, deception and damnation, “Safe House” openly cribs from better movies like John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor,” Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces” and Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale.”

The cookie-cutter plot and Identi-Kit characters are given a jolt of life, however, thanks to exceptional performances from the entire cast (which includes much-appreciated cameos from Robert “T-1000” Patrick and Ruben “Danny Boy” Blades), as well as an overarching approach to action-movie violence that is ugly, jarring and frenetic. As it should be.

Trying to convey the harsh reality of a lifestyle most people probably think is “cool,” “Safe House” argues that being an action hero is neither fun nor pretty, and involves forcing oneself to take fewer actions that could reasonably be called heroic than one would think. Smarter and better executed than your average black-ops actioner, “Safe House” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does roll, somewhat bumpily, into the realm of respectability.

3.5 stars out of 5.