CIA thriller ‘Safe House’ takes no chances

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Safe House

2 out of 4 stars

117 minutes

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

For the protagonist of “Safe House,” bouncing a ball against a wall for hours on end is the most exciting part of his day. After watching it, you may wish you had used your admission to invest in a SuperBall yourself.

In the eyes of agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), being part of the CIA should be about making a huge difference in the world. In actuality, his sole duty is holding down the fort at an agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa.

Weston’s humdrum days of waiting for his contact (Brendan Gleeson) to update him about a possible promotion continue to weigh on him more and more as his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) pushes him to be more open with her.

When the day finally comes when he sees some action, it’s much more than his training could have prepared him to handle.

Former agent turned informant Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is being held by the CIA for interrogation about his criminal activities, but before Weston and his colleagues can get any details out of him, they are under attack by a team of guns for hire. With plenty more people desiring the data held by Frost, Weston escapes with his prisoner intact and seeks out a way to keep both of them secure.

But, Frost’s reputation as a first-rate spy isn’t for naught, and he isn’t about to let the kid who’s still a novice in the field get them both killed.

Washington’s methodology of approaching his roles with undeterred stoicism is one that can be either very beneficial, as in “American Gangster” and “Training Day,” or drastically flawed, as in “Déjà Vu” or “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

The cool and calm approach works for the aptly named Frost, whose smugness first comes across as he mocks his agency captors by pointing out their misstep in washcloth thread cloth as they prepare to waterboard him.

Even so, the man who always knows how just what to do at just the right time starts to become less human the further along he goes. Reynolds never even has a chance to keep up as the young agent aching to prove himself, whose dedication to his job gets tested the longer he stays in Frost’s company.

While he’s got his hands full with the nitty-gritty responsibilities of keeping his charge from harm, superiors Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard are doing all they can to find a way to make things easier. Not a simple task, with a mercenary (Fares Fares) hot on Frost and Weston’s trail, along with an ever-lengthening list of South African officials.

The authentic filming spots around Cape Town are a plus, with the twosome tearing across the city, making an important pit stop at the metropolis’s soccer stadium before the chase becomes even more convoluted.

The usual array of complications unfold here as Frost and Weston fight for their lives — someone has an ace up his sleeve, someone isn’t who they appear to be, etc.

The plotline might have been fresh years ago, but after heaps of movies exactly like this in the last decade — the “Bourne” trilogy, “Body of Lies” and “Salt,” to name just a few — there’s nothing that differentiates it from the rest of them. By now, the CIA’s fictional pursuits seem so commonplace, each additional movie about the government entity gets exponentially more tiresome as they frantically adhere to the status quo.

The two stellar stars of “Safe House” can’t keep the movie from becoming an utter bore and given the screenplay by David Guggenheim, there’s hardly any point in trying in the first place. Considering we’re talking about characters who risk their lives on a daily basis, it’s pathetic that the films depicting them insist on playing it safe.

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