Safe House, an espionage chase film set in South Africa, is rotten enough to be a sequel to District 9, where South African racial issues were treated to a dumb sci-fi alien allegory. Here, the alien is Denzel Washington, who first appears walking down a Johannesburg street in a Malcolm X beard and fedora. But due to the film's coincidental, District 9-style absurdity, that Malcolm X guise is a quasi-political ruse: Washington is playing Tobin Frost, an infamous double agent who has gone rogue, selling Mossad and MI6 secrets and dodging the CIA, who list him as a "traitor" and "murderer."
When the CIA waterboards Frost and its Safe House is breached, rookie agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) takes custody and attempts to bring him in chased by lethally powered anonymous assassins. Their cat-and-mouse game through the obstacle course of Jo-burg shantytowns, beaches and a soccer stadium rouses both men's skepticism about government security (and panders to our own). Yet, Safe House gives as little serious thought to actual politics or race relations as the ludicrous District 9.
Co-producer Washington merely exploits the political potential of both his own stardom and the audience's depraved taste for violence. Safe House employs relentless gunplay and killing while smugly decrying torture tactics; it also takes a high body count of black African citizens (and whites, too) while playing out an Obama-era version of The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer's landmark 1958 film in which Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis played black and white escaped convicts handcuffed together and running toward freedom in the racist American South.
When Frost tells Weston, "We take advantage of people's desire to believe, to trust," that could be Washington explaining his career path as a craven "post-racial" Hollywood icon. Forget brotherhood-the only frisson in the men's relationship is ass kicking; no ideological discussion, simply the black/white spectacle for the cheap illusion of substance.
District 9's allegory depended on naïveté, but Safe House depends on cynicism. It's really a loathsome distortion of genre expectations, mixing poorly edited chases with fake politics. At times Weston plays Super Honky Patriot to Frost, to whom Washington gives the full, appalling panoply of arrogant black stereotypes: Frost is slyly calculating, knowingly cynical, ruthlessly violent.
This is the first time Washington has worked in South Africa since the 1987 Cry Freedom, when his career took off playing the martyred activist Steve Biko. This is his anti-Biko, playing against his goody two-shoes biopic roles.
Having grown up during the Blaxploitation era and seen the stud heroics of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey and Ron O'Neal, Washington's film career peaked when hip-hop did, and he took hip-hop's Reagan-era hustling to heart. Not just striving for success, Washington, like Frost, has gone rogue seeking a thug niche. But his insistence on proud, contemptuous characters is as much a trap as being limited to butlers and buffoons. It's just hustling, not artistry.
Director Daniel Espinosa gives Safe House the same jagged, shallow intensity as the house style Washington has developed with Tony Scott, but he never achieves expressive action tropes like in the marvelous Colombiana or thrilling Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Instead, Safe House chases after fake significance, turning Weston's denouement into the same liberal media exposé of the U.S. government. Safe House might have been clever fun-not just cynical-had Denzel traded that Malcolm X getup for a Matt Damon mask.
Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xchair.