'Safe House' Keeps Audiences Off Balance, Breathless

Safe House is a take-no-prisoners action extravaganza that's heavy on bullets and brutal hand-to-hand combat. Denzel Washington plays the especially chilly Tobin Frost, a renegade CIA operative. And wouldn't you know it, the safe house is not exactly safe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The actor Denzel Washington has developed a special knack for intense, morally challenged characters in films like "Training Day" and "American Gangster." That streak continues with his latest movie, "Safe House." Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: In a Denzel Washington movie, is anyplace less safe than a safe house? Is any setting more likely to be visited by chaos and destruction? I don't think so. So, it's no surprise that "Safe House" is a take-no-prisoners action extravaganza that's heavy on bullets and brutal hand-to-hand combat. Washington plays the especially chilly Tobin Frost, a renegade CIA operative. Frost was once the best of the best, an expert manipulator of men, able to snap necks the way lesser mortals twist off beer caps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAFE HOUSE")

VERA FARMIGA: (as Catherine) He was one of the most brilliant CIA operatives we ever had, until he went rogue.

TURAN: While Frost is in Cape Town, South Africa on some especially nefarious business, he runs into so much trouble, he ends up in a local CIA safe house for interrogation. Naturally, Matt Weston, the man in charge, played by Ryan Reynolds, has as much hands-on experience as a toddler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAFE HOUSE")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Tobin) It's OK. I remember my first posting: Rio de Janeiro, house like this. Not one single visitor, would I remember rule number one: You are responsible for your house guest. I'm your house guest.

TURAN: For that safe house, wouldn't you know it, is not exactly safe. Faster than you can say heavy weapons fire, young Weston finds himself out on the streets, trying to keep both himself and Frost alive. This formulaic story is given extra flair by the direction of Sweden's Daniel Espinosa. He's given "Safe House" an unmistakably stylish and unsettling tone characterized by probing camera work and quick and edgy cutting. Espinosa knows just how to keep audiences off balance, wondering when they'll get a chance to catch their next breath.

As a young agent desperate to prove himself to the CIA top brass, Weston struggles to keep control of the situation, while Frost, master of mind games that he is, attempts to get inside the younger man's head. If only Weston can get Frost to yet another safe house, he can write his own ticket. It's a movie. Get used to it.

MONTAGNE: And the movie is "Safe House." Kenneth Turan reviews moves for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION.

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