“Is this legal?” asks the gaping maw of CIA rookie / audience surrogate Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) as he witnesses intelligence thief extraordinaire Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) being waterboarded in a South African safe house. For a film that fancies itself a thinking man’s action movie in the vein of the “Bourne” trilogy, one would think a CIA agent working a black-ops site would know whether so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques are legal or not.
And that’s one of the biggest problems of “Safe House.” Where Jason Bourne had the luxury of amnesia to explain his crisis of conscience and lack of information, writer David Guggenheim and director Daniel Espinosa solved their dilemma by making Matt Weston an idiot.
As Matt watches Tobin’s torture, unnamed paramilitary / terrorists / no-goodniks storm the safe house to extract Tobin and retrieve a flash drive McGuffin full of ostensibly sensitive data. After every other CIA agent is killed, it’s up to Matt to spirit Tobin away to another safe house several hours away. Naturally, Tobin escapes on foot in the show-stopping centerpiece action sequence of the film.
Matt disobeys orders from CIA headquarters to give up the search for Tobin out of some desperate need to prove himself (yes, the phrase “off the grid” is used). However, the more he learns about Tobin and the possible contents of the flash drive, the harder it becomes to justify his pursuit.
The wonderful irony about “Safe House,” which grapples with the morality of data and intellectual property theft for the greater good, is that it borrows so many story elements, it should have been called “The Bourne Facsimile.”
Embedded subcutaneous microchip? Check. Estranged European girlfriend? Check. French reunion with estranged European girlfriend? Check. Haircut montage to hide identities? Check. Blurry handheld action sequences? Check. Oversaturated, gritty film stock? Check. Even the excellent Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard act as stand-ins for “Bourne’s” Brian Cox and Chris Cooper, respectively. It doesn’t help that the trailer for “The Bourne Legacy” is attached to this film.
That’s not to say “Safe House” isn’t entertaining. Espinosa obviously studied his source material in meticulous detail while editor Richard Pearson’s jump-cutting gives the film an energetic, jittery feel. Also, Washington, in full “Training Day” mode, turns in a monster performance that singlehandedly boosts the quality of the film.
Just try not to think too hard.