Back in 1988, “Midnight Run” proved the old “odd couple” formula — the pairing of a vulgar, vice-ridden slob and a fastidious, nervous type — could be adapted to action as well as comedy, and often both.
But the odd couple in “Safe House” comes more from life: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is seasoned and cynical, and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is young and optimistic.
When Washington plays a role of this kind, as in “Training Day,” he has no trouble commanding the screen and proving he knows all. But in “Safe House,” his armor may have a hole or two, and Reynolds is more than a match for him.
The characters’ simultaneous cynicism and optimism is a theme that runs through “Safe House” as Frost, a renegade CIA agent who suddenly turns himself in to an American consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, crosses paths with Weston, who oversees a nearby safe house — basically a high-tech apartment available for agents who need a place to keep or question a suspect.
Usually nothing happens on Weston’s watch. But Frost’s arrival provides plenty of action. A gang of thugs blasts its way in, and Weston finds his only option is to get out, with the crafty Frost in tow.
He must try to keep Frost in his care until more help arrives, and he also must keep moving. Bad guys are everywhere, and they have a large supply of guns, knives, explosives and cars to crash.
It doesn’t help when Frost manages to escape.
Washington and Reynolds are terrific, genuinely clicking. Their characters impressively relate on a physical, as well as verbal, level.
Swedish-born director Daniel Espinosa cleverly juxtaposes the characters — their positioning, clothes and environment — but also, unfortunately, too often resorts to jerky, jumbled fight scenes that drag.
Meanwhile, David Guggenheim’s lazy script throws in such typical devices as a mole hidden in the CIA and a secret file containing names of all the rogue agents in the world — they’re too easy, and the movie wastes time on them.
While the filmmakers could have gone deeper to create a more thoughtful movie, the bulk of “Safe House,” thankfully, is at least spent on the two fascinating main characters.