IN THE OPENING moments of "Safe House," rogue agent Denzel Washington endures bullets and waterboarding with the air of a man getting a spa treatment.
He's relaxed and cool, and the audience laughs, because Washington wears his movie star history/charisma like armor. He wants his star stature to blend with his character - Tobin Frost, a celebrity in the CIA for having built its modern spy machine before he mysteriously went AWOL. Now Frost is back, and in possession of sensitive data that many intelligence agencies will kill to suppress.
He ends up in the hands of dazzled rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), in charge of a sleepy agency safe house in South Africa, a dull assignment that becomes a bloody nightmare when Frost shows up, half the world's assassins in hot pursuit.
"Safe House" is a rolling gunbattle and fist fight through Johannesburg, not so much action-packed as relentlessly, gruelingly violent. Bone-crunching, close-quarter fight scenes borrowed from the "Bourne" franchise, saturation wide-screen coverage from Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (yes, Swedish), apparently brought in to mimic the style of frequent Washington partner Tony Scott.
There are echoes of "Training Day" here as Frost and Reynolds develop a fraught, mentor-newbie relationship, allies one minute, enemies the next, united at least by their shared need to survive the men who are trying to kill them.
What kills the movie, though, is the script. That's strange, because it was known for years as one of the industry's best unproduced screenplays. Now it's produced, and it's as full of holes as the 50 or so guys that Frost and Reynolds mow down in the streets of Johannesburg.
Reynolds is preposterously slow to realize that there is an obvious mole in his chain of command (Sam Shepherd, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga).
He runs from one blown "safe" location to the next, the last person in the theater to wonder why the hit men are always waiting for him.
No George Smiley, this guy.