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"Safe House" review: Only Denzel Washington can rescue this

In this film image released by Universal Pictures, Denzel Washington is shown in a scene from "Safe House." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Jasin Boland) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Denzel Washington in a scene from "Safe House."
Denzel Washington is shown in a scene from "Safe House."
AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Jasin Boland

Swedish director Daniel Espinosa works overtime to deliver a gritty, action bonanza, long on kamikaze-style fight sequences and spectacular car chases, but short on substance.

Denzel Washington, who also served as executive producer, stars as Tobin Frost, the CIA's most dangerous operative, who has gone rogue. Suspected of being a double agent, Frost is a mercenary who headquarters believe has traded intelligence with foreign enemies .

On the run for more than a decade, Frost suddenly walks into the American Embassy in Cape Town and surrenders himself. CIA headquarters scrambles to figure out what exactly is going on and high level ops Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson go into overdrive to make sure Frost is remanded into custody. He is taken to a safe house in South Africa, where a low-level op, Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds), serves as the facility's "housekeeper."

There agents are assigned to interrogate the master spy and authorized to use water boarding to get sensitive materials Frost may have in his possession. During the operation, the safe house is corrupted by brutal militants, who kill everyone but Frost and his newbie caretaker.

The two must flee, and Weston finally gets the high-level assignment he's dreamed of, to deliver his charge to an alternative CIA-operated facility.

From the outset, it's clear Denzel Washington sets the tone for this frenetic thriller with an almost arbitrary storyline, which exists to bridge one action sequence to the next, one the audience already knows is coming. Espinosa does a good job jazzing up the action with shaky hand-held cameras and choppy editing, but it is only the first-class acting of Washington that brings balance and complexity. Ironically enough, he manages to do this by playing to the hilt a completely cool, subdued, but calculating manipulator.

It's a good thing Washington is known for his precise acting skills, being able to morph into any situation to deliver just the right performance and hit just the right notes, because that is the very opposite of what Reynolds delivers in "Safe House." Taken completely captive by the frenzied pitch of the film, Reynolds is overpowered by the action swirling around him and looks limp ,compared to a pro like Washington. Overshadowed on all fronts, he comes off as the weakest link. Both Farmiga and Sam Shepard, who plays another high- ranking CIA official, turn in strong performances.

Too violent for some tastes, the movie has captivating moments, including a chilling car chase through Cape Town and a daredevil pursuit over the rooftops of Langa Township. The backdrop of a teeming, populous location adds color and vibrancy.

Still, the film never lives up to its full potential, thanks to its weak screenplay. At best, "Safe House" emerges as a helter-skelter roller coaster ride with Denzel Washington in control. Focus on him, and you will come out safely.