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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.
. "Safe House"

Wall to wall action, betrayals and bullets on the wholesale level, secrecy, corruption, subterfuge and espionage around every corner, car chases and combat, enough testosterone to fuel a 747, all the atmospherics of the CIA spy game and an exceptional cast. Just don't let an inventive story get in the way.

What there is of story revolves around two major figures and a list of corrupt officials that could bring the agency down and which they want to get so that they can suppress it. We start with classic good guy Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, "Green Lantern") stationed in an agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. But if this young rookie had any illusions of getting anywhere near an appointment as an actual field agent, one year into his career he's still on the data janitorial level and bored stiff.

On the civilian side, however, there's excitement in his life, in his relationship to French girlfriend Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder) from whom he's hidden his true occupation. This may or may not have been the wisest choice, but when ensuing events compel him to come clean and explain threats to her life, the truth of who she's gotten entangled with comes out. We've seen this sub-plot before and it's a yawn, at best.

Enter bearded big-haired Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, "American Gangster"), the suspected possessor of that list. Traveling on foot through busy thoroughfares, the most wanted rogue agent on the CIA's apprehend list tries to meld in to the crowd. Then, the streets erupt with gunfire -- aimed at him. Agile and deceptive, he manages to turn himself in to a consulate and winds up in the local agency safe house where he's heavily guarded and questioned, as in waterboarding. But at least he's alive.

The escapade of an unknown rookie taking the most wanted man in the agency comes to the attention of the high-ups at Langley where agency director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepherd, "Fair Game") calls the shots in an attempt to retrieve their high-value fugitive. He learns of Weston for the first time, the rookie kid, the lowest of the low in the pecking order -- and he's got their prize! Agent David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson, "In Bruges"), Frost's mentor and protector, gets into the action, as does agent Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga).

In fact, the threads of comprehension comes down largely to the language of brutal firepower and flying ordnance as one chase leads to another with almost no space to take a breath. This intercuts with Frost, the field veteran, trying to get into Weston's mind as he remains shackled from hideout to hideout on the way to another safe house. Meanwhile, the agency director turns toward the leak that produced the attack just minutes after Frost was taken in, and which was lethal to many of his agents. Is there a traitor among them? This is a mystery that must be solved.

The chase goes on in "Midnight Run" mode (Robert Deniro and Charles Grodin, 1988) as we watch Frost trying to instill fear and hesitation in the rookie, setting up an escape. But, the kid is no slouch either, and the tense psychological connection between agent and prisoner becomes the core of the film and its greatest accomplishment due to the level of acting that these actors maintain.

Not so much for director Daniel Espinosa's choice of filming technique. He and cinematographer Oliver Wood go way overboard in making the entire film with hand-held, sea-sickness-inducing camera operating. It's a common device to add excitement to action but that effect works when it's judiciously employed rather than constant and rather poorly executed in many instances here. Given that Wood was the Director of Photography on the superb "Bourne" series, I lay the blame on the director who is here making his first major film.

It's also a device that's used because it's cheaper in terms of production budget and I suspect that may have played a part in using it to such an extent.

If technical elements can be any worse, however, it's in the sound quality. I can with conviction say that I've never seen a Denzel Washington movie that sounded like vast areas of the audio spectrum were missing -- like people talking though suppression gauze. Since I viewed the film in a state-of-the art theater, the only possible excuse would be a bad print. You decide. If you hear clearly every word and know exactly what's going on every minute, then I saw a bad print. Leave a note (below) to let me know of your experience.

Of note in a brief appearance is Robert Patrick as Daniel Kiefer, one tough agent who is just outbulleted. (Full disclosure: he's a neighbor of mine in the Hollywood Hills). Of course, Brendan Gleeson does his wonderful Irish toughguy to great effect. Shepherd is theeffective go-to guy for a credible portrayal of the above-suspicion agency director.

Washington, with his list of credits, needs no career boost with another great performance that reminds us of how impressive he can be in a vicious, intelligent role. Just think 2001's "Training Day." But Reynolds' career gets that boost by showing solid backbone in a taut, sudden-death drama. He's got it. He can do the action hero. And, after all the espionage trails end in a flood of blood, it's he who leaves us with the lasting impression.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost behind the wheel; Ryan Reynolds as the
rookie CIA agent in the back (with a gun in hand)
Taking the fugitive in.

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