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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Denzel Washington stars in "Safe House," in theaters today.
Denzel Washington stars in "Safe House," in theaters today.

Stay home and wait for "Safe House"

Action fans looking for an escape from all the niceties this semi-Valentine's weekend will find adequate diversion with "Safe House," which opens today. Alternatively, you can rent the Bourne trilogy, triple your distraction time and get pretty much the same thing.

"Safe House" borrows many of the same plot devices of the Bourne films, or any government-related action thriller: rogue agents, internal conspiracies and even a star-crossed lovers subplot. It also relies on the same handheld camera and stylistic focus tricks of the Bournes, which – depending on your preference – can be either hyper-impactful or disorienting.

The film starts abruptly, throwing the audience into the action in a way similar to dumping a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces into a heap on the floor. It introduces Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a green CIA agent stationed as a safe house keeper in South Africa, his French expatriate girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) and his senior CIA agent mentor (Brendan Gleeson). At the same time, the scenes are interspersed with the maneuverings of rogue CIA agent Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington). After some cryptic dealings with an MI-6 ally, the mess escalates as he's chased to the U.S. consulate by a band of hired guns.

With most of the necessary exposition crammed into the viewers' brains, the movie at last calms to a manageable level of chaos. Bell is transported to Weston's safe house for questioning, which gets breached by the aforementioned hired guns. Explosions and gunfire ensue, the team sent to the house to secure and question Bell gets taken out and Weston is forced to take charge of his house guest.

From here, "Safe House" takes on the usual conspiracy-based action tasks and becomes much easier to wrap your head around, i.e. it's filled with gritty, near-relentless action of the car chase/gun battle variety. The actual story flounders between these sequences, but since there's not much left to tell it's an easy thing for the movie to get away with. The "what's left" laboriously weaves the few required plot twists and sequences together with awkward, stagnant bonding moments between Weston and Bell and culminates with inevitable, and predictable, results.

There is a difference between cliched and unlikable, however. While "Safe House" lacks innovation, it retains an entertainment value proportionate to its formulaic action template. It's no train wreck, but it's best to let it run its course on the big screen and catch it in rental form.

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