In ‘Safe House,’ the Cars and the Guns Get the Best Lines

Review: When the tires stop screeching and the people start talking, the new Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller “Safe House” gets substantially less thrilling

The term “action porn” gets thrown around rather haphazardly, but it’s rare that a movie embodies the term quite as strongly as “Safe House.”

The scenes of fighting, shooting, and car-chasing are all quite breathtaking, but you’ll be twitching for the fast-forward button during the seemingly endless sequences of plot development and dialogue that connect all the thrilling stuff together.

CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) hopes for a more exciting assignment after 12 months of minding the agency’s Cape Town, South Africa safe house, a gig that mostly involves sitting by the phone and making sure the fridge is stocked with drinks and plasma.

His introduction to the world of spy action comes when rogue agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) comes in from the cold at the American consulate in Cape Town after a decade of being off the grid and engaging in nefarious business. While Frost is being waterboarded (unsuccessfully — he’s played by Denzel Washington after all) at the safe house, armed gunmen invade the place and take out everyone but Weston and Frost, who escape together and prompt a hair-raising, high-speed car chase which culminates with the two agents trying to kill each other in a car that’s ripping through traffic pedal to the metal.

“Safe House” lives up to its title by going exactly where you can expect from here — Weston is accused of aiding and abetting Frost’s escape, Frost may not be the villain everyone thinks, there’s treachery among the CIA’s top tier, and so on, forever and ever, amen.

When Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, making his U.S. debut, gets to put his lead characters into dangerous situations involving Range Rovers, automatic weapons, or even hand-to-hand combat, “Safe House” suddenly gets a pulse. But then things slow down, and we’re stuck with David Guggenheim’s tin-eared, unengaging screenplay.

When I see Vera Farmiga in a thankless role like the one she has here — as an exposition-spouting CIA functionary — the one upside is the thought that she’s raising money to make the follow-up to her extraordinary 2011 directorial debut “Higher Ground.” If nothing else, “Safe House” is the kind of movie giving work to a gaggle of talented character actors — including Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, Rubén Blades, Robert Patrick and Tracie Thoms (“Death Proof”) — who barely have to break a sweat in exchange for a paycheck that will cover some experimental theater or earning scale in an indie.

As for the stars, the results are like watching an Olympic swimmer make his way through a gigantic bowl of oatmeal. Reynolds mopes about (worried about his character’s girlfriend safety and guilty for having lied to her about what he does for a living) while Washington — whose character is supposed to be a genius at manipulating people, even though we almost never see him do it — takes on an air of mild concern with traces of regret and basically plays that note over and over from start to finish. It’s yet another movie that doesn’t play to Reynolds’ strengths as a performer, and another one in which Washington coasts on our collective memory of his best work.

Still, as action porn goes, the money shots are definitely worth it. Just sneak out for popcorn whenever the conversations start.