Feb. 10, 2012 at 9:16 AM ET
REVIEW: In "Safe House," Denzel Washington plays a rogue ex-CIA agent who literally wrote the book on interrogation techniques. So when he's taken into custody after years on the lam, he actually gives the interrogators advice on how to waterboard him correctly (they're using the wrong towels). His delivery is confident and smooth, with no hint that he's bothered by the fact he's about to be nearly drowned over and over again.
Washington's Tobin Frost is a great character, with the cool of a bad-guy James Bond, and Washington is the perfect choice to play him. When he's brought into the South African safe house run by inexperienced agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), Weston at first appears to have no idea how to handle him -- he's in awe and out of his depth.
But then the safe house is attacked and Weston has to flee, dragging his houseguest behind him, and now it's a matter of Weston growing up on the job and Frost bringing out all his accumulated savvy to get away from the rookie agent. It's every movie where the smart guy's being held prisoner by the muscle. Although the big guy has the gun, the smart guy just keeps talking, and talking, and pretty soon he's got his guard doubting every move he makes.
You've seen this balance of power before, but Washington makes it something special as he smoothly plays both father figure and wise mentor to Reynolds' nervous young agent. You could watch Frost break down Weston's confidence forever -- unfortunately, the film has too little of that in its hurry to get to some slam-bam, sometimes confusing action scenes.
The plot doesn't always hold together -- there's a betrayal that's telegraphed way too early, a romance we don't care about, and the typical scenes where a machine gun fired at close range doesn't even nick our heroes. But in addition to the compelling scenes where Frost slips inside Weston's head, there's a great sequence between Reynolds and Joel Kinnaman as the keeper of a rural safe house. (Maybe this should be a TV series -- CIA safe houses around the world.)
The ending's a mix of satisfaction and cliche, but by then, Washington's left enough magic behind to make an evening in the "House" worth your while.
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