"Safe House": A spy formula, worked hard and well

If Denzel Washington isn't the coolest dude out there, I don't know who is. In Safe House - a breakneck spy thriller set mainly in Cape Town, South Africa - Washington is Tobin Frost, a CIA ace gone rogue.

Calm-and-collected in clandestine meetings, savoring glasses of fine wine, eluding squads of sinister goons, escaping Houdini-like from one bad fix to the next, he hardly looks ruffled, barely quickens his step.

Long ago, he was a top op. He was the case officer who "rewrote agency interrogation protocols" (someone says, impressed). Inside Langley, he was legendary. Outside Langley, he moved like a ghost.

And now, he's the "house guest" in a secret holding facility somewhere in downtown Cape Town. An eager, inexperienced agent, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), is playing host - idly throwing tennis balls against the wall when he gets an urgent phone call to expect company.

And then comes Frost, in handcuffs, a bag over his head, ringed by a CIA extraction team, and accused of being a traitor to his country.

And then come those sinister goons, battling their way into the building.

And there go Frost and Weston, on the run.

Written by David Guggenheim, a former US Weekly staffer, and directed by Daniel Espinosa, a filmmaker whose fast, furious Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash won him heaps of attention, Safe House rockets along, taking a familiar formula and making it work - hard.

Sure, we've seen the seasoned pro/rookie protege thing before (in fact, we've seen it in Training Day, which earned Washington his Oscar, playing a cynical LAPD veteran opposite Ethan Hawke's idealistic newbie). But both Frost and Weston have backstories, and Washington and Reynolds invest their respective characters with pathologies that seem genuine.

And Washington just has a way of watching - working his eyes across a room, or across another man's face - that suggests canny instincts, a been-there/done-that savvy.

There are some accomplished, quick-cut, white-knuckle chase sequences in Safe House: by foot, by car, by leaps across the tin roofs of Langa, a shantytown on the outskirts of the beautiful coastal city. Espinosa and his team have watched their Bourne movies, they know their stuff, deliver the jolts.

Alas, like the Bourne movies, there are cutaways to the situation room at HQ, where, in this case, a worried Vera Farmiga stands, barking commands into the speaker phone. (Essentially the same thing she did in last year's Source Code.) And there are shots of Brendan Gleeson on his cell on a D.C. sidewalk, talking Weston through his travails. Sam Shepard is a CIA deputy director, Rubén Blades a wily counterfeiter and old pal of Frost's, Liam Cunningham is an MI6 compadre, Robert Patrick a tough CIA team leader, and Joel Kinnaman (from The Killing) a fellow agency housekeeper. Nora Arnezeder is the French girlfriend Weston is all torn up about, and it's not hard to see why.

Inevitably, Safe House falls back on transparent genre conventions, but at least it does so with a knowing wink.

When Frost tells Weston how things are going to play out - the two of them holed up in a hotel, hiding out from guys with guns - he predicts that the CIA bosses are going to say, "You've done a fine job. We'll take it from here."

And wouldn't you know it, that's exactly what Reynolds' Weston eventually hears.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www. philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.


Safe House

Directed by Daniel Espinosa. With Vera Farmiga, Nora Arnezeder, Sebastian Roche, Brendan Gleeson, Tanit Phoenix, Sam Shephard, Denzel Washington, Robert Patrick, Rubén Blades, Ryan Reynolds. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 57 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong violence throughout and some language).