Back in film classes kids had a tendency to make student films about a guy being chased.1 No explanation, and often no conclusion. A guy running. He leaps over logs, his feet splash through the the edge of a stream, he looks back nervously. Yes, these films usually take place in a woods somewhere. Someone is watching or chasing, but we never see who it is. Such movies had two virtues for their makers: they allowed latitude for interesting camera angles and swift editing, and they were vaguely "existential" or Kafkaesque.2 Tales of man's puniness in the face of higher forces.
Well, these students have grown up and some have entered the film business and what they make are chase films. In the mediocre ones, as usual, it doesn't matter who is chasing whom, it only matters that chasing is being committed. In Safe House, the viewer meets a certain Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), and in a few seconds he is running for his life. Who is chasing him? Why? Eventually we learn this, but even that solution is vague. Frost has a "file." It will embarrass people. Those who don't want to be embarrassed somehow know about this file and want to get it back. Frost is the anti-hero. He is a rogue CIA agent who turned "traitor" years earlier. His unwilling buddy is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a CIA safe house clerk in South Africa where Tobin ends up when he has no where else to hide. After a chase from the safe house, a chase through a soccer stadium, a car chase through the streets of JoBerg, a chase through a depressed area, and a final confrontation at a safe house in the country so big it could pass for Trump Plaza, Weston finally learns, with us, what the whole thing has been about, and accepts the torch, so to speak, from Frost.3
The film follows the rules of the genre. No one can wing a running man, no matter how many guns are trained on him. Bad guys always anticipate where the runner will go. Oh, and when an older mentor says, "You know I'm looking out for you," that person is the main betrayer.
A large secondary cast is called upon to stand in command centers and look at oversized NCIS screens and speak spy jargon with a phone to one ear. This cast includes Vera Farmiga in the "Joan Allen" role from the Bourne movies,
Brendan Gleeson in the Brian Cox role, and Sam Shepard in the David Strathairn part. Also on hand are Rubén Blades as Frost's buddy and passport counterfeiter, and Robert Patrick as mid-level spook muscle. All are photographed by Oliver Wood to expose the realistic splotches on their faces.
The pace is swift but strangely enervating. The slow and quiet moments of talk between chases are even worse. In the Bourne films, the slow parts are just as interesting as the rest, but when Safe House pauses, it dies. Daniel Espinosa, a Swedish director of earlier crime films, maintains a reasonable level of authenticity, but soon characters are covered in blood and it devolves into one of those films where sanguinous men are crawling toward each other with shards of glass in their midst. Why are action directors constantly tempted to wound their heroes and make them inactive. I guess it's existential or something.
1 The other type of student movie always began with someone waking up, looking at a clock.
2 At this stage, we should start blending the notions into Kafkastential.
3 Given what happens to the file, Safe House could be called the first WikiLeaks movie, just as Three Days of the Condor was the first Pentagon Papers movie.