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With his debut Swedish-language feature Snabba Cash, Daniel Espinosa introduced himself as a foreign director perfectly capable of aping Tony Scott-style Hollywood action; the film's uniqueness was the setting and the language, not the style or the story. So for his debut English-language feature Safe House he's making exactly that kind of movie again, but with Hollywood stars and a threadbare script that takes the novelty away entirely. Leaving the audience in the dark for the sake of a central mystery that never gets interesting, Safe House is less a thriller than an experiment in confusion, trying to rile up the audience by stranding them in scenes they don't understand, over and over until the climax mercifully sets us free.
The central conceit, of a lone, low-level CIA operative (Ryan Reynolds) detaining a dangerous rogue agent (Denzel Washington), is rock solid. Reynolds tamps down his sassy persona to play a goody two-shoes striver completely at sea, and while Washington is playing a more familiar "dangerous" type of character (when was the last time he seemed legitimately challenged by a role?), he's at least still very, very good at playing this guy. Reynolds' Matt Weston, stuck in a dead-end CIA post manning a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, rightly recognizes it's his big break when the hotly pursued Tobin Frost is brought into his house, then swiftly broken out by a band of anonymous thugs. But Matt is also terrified, and Reynolds nicely balances his constant fear and lack of ideas with a sense that this guy is worth rooting for anyway. In the rare scenes where he and Frost communicate with anything other than mind games, or the even rarer action scene executed well, Matt's green, figure-this-out-as-I-go-along attitude raises the stakes, especially when pitched against the one-step-ahead Frost.
But then there's nearly every other action scene, all of them plunging the characters into some location with no geographical logic to help us make sense of it. Even the opening action sequence, in which we meet Frost as he's pursued by some nameless baddies, is a muddle; we don't know him and we don't know them, and unable to even follow the action, the audience is lost five minutes into the film. Espinosa's shaky, kinetic camera is a familiar action movie trope by now, but rarely has it been accompanied by such a lack of geography, so that even the relatively contained safe house constantly reveals new hallways or rooms; it's crucial in a closed-in, intense scene like that to understand where the characters are in relation to each other, and Espinosa never pulls that off. It feels like even more of a missed opportunity later on, when Frost and Weston are both outrunning the same bad guys through the slums, crashing into living rooms and skittering over tin roofs. Still having no idea who these villains are at this late point in the story, it's easy to doze off, remembering the chase scene in Fast Five with a similar slum setting that pulled it off infinitely better.
The one exception is a slower, more deliberate chase scene that happens at a soccer stadium, Espinosa cutting between the riled-up football fans and Weston and Frost as they cat-and-mouse their way through a location that's familiar enough to make sense. By then we know Weston and Frost and how they operate, and the scene takes advantage of its stars and the potential of its location beautifully; that and a late scene featuring Snabba Cash's own Joel Kinnaman in a brief role are the best indications that Espinosa does in fact have better work ahead of him.
In addition to Kinnaman, smaller supporting roles are filled out by Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga, both of them given the thankless task of standing in CIA Headquarters and spouting off mountains of exposition while all the good action happens elsewhere. Those arduous exposition scenes are the surest signs that David Guggenheim's script is taking too many shortcuts, though the fact that the movie's MacGuffin-- a microchip containing valuable blah blah blah-- winds up discussed in constant detail is a major misstep too. With Espinosa and Guggenheim both being such newcomers, Safe House does show some potential-- but the pile of missed opportunities make you wish they'd cut their teeth somewhere else, and let Reynolds and Washington go at each other in a movie that could support them better.