Plot holes, lack of character development mar by-the-numbers 'Safe House'

Welcome once again to one of Hollywood's longest-running shows: "When Dumb Scripts Happen to Smart Actors."

Today's episode: "Safe House," which strands Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds (among others) in a mostly pedestrian, occasionally preposterous, CIA thriller.

Watching the movie's starring duo struggle to keep this tired vehicle in gear, it's hard to shake the feeling that they know it, too.

That goes double for Swedish-born director Daniel Espinosa , making a hyperkinetic Hollywood debut.

Espinosa works his restless, shaky-cam visual style relentlessly, as if he were afraid to let up and take a breath, even for a moment, for fear we might notice all the plot holes in David Guggenheim's herky-jerky script.

Sorry, guys, but we can't help but notice -- especially when "Safe House" tries so hard to make sure we don't.

And even if we didn't, it wouldn't matter, because we're so familiar with the territory, we always know where we're heading.

That's not always a problem; some movies make the journey so diverting that we don't mind that we've visited the destination many times before.

Alas, "Safe House" isn't one of those movies.

We open in Cape Town, South Africa, where earnest young CIA agent Matt Weston (Reynolds) is going stir crazy at the local outpost, waiting for something to happen.

Something other than bemoaning the imminent departure of his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder ), a fetching French doctor who's on her way back to Paris.

Silly boy. Don't you know better than to be careful what you wish for?

Never fear. Matt will find out soon enough -- just as soon as rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost (Washington) shows up on his doorstep.

A notorious operative who's been trading secrets, and eluding capture, for years, Frost plays let's-make-a-deal with a veteran British operative (Liam Cunningham) -- and immediately starts dodging assorted assassins determined to get their hands on him, and his latest explosive information.

Lots of flying bullets (and shattered glass and crunched car fenders) later, Frost considers his rapidly evaporating options -- and gives himself up to U.S. officials at the Cape Town consulate.

His surprise surrender triggers understandably anxious reaction back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where deputy director Harlan Whitford (an appropriately grizzled Sam Shepard) orders underlings David Barlow (avuncular Brendan Gleeson) and Catherine Linklater (taut-wire Vera Farmiga) to find out what Frost is up to -- and, more importantly, what he knows.

Until they can muster their forces, however, it's up to Weston to hold the fort on his own, for as long as he can. If he can, with a slippery cat like Frost as his adversary in a potentially deadly game of cat-and-mouse-in-the-"Safe House."

If only the movie had been content to focus on the mind games -- and the potential role reversals -- between these two characters.

But that would have required some genuine character development, something that doesn't seem to interest screenwriter Guggenheim in the slightest.

Then again, who knows whether director Espinosa would have been up to the challenge of orchestrating such in-depth interplay, given his propensity for slice-and-dice editing and big, loud action distractions.

They're no doubt designed to get our motors racing -- and get our minds off "Safe House's" inherent emptiness. But you can only sit through so many obligatory roadblocks and obvious detours before you notice the movie's going nowhere but in circles.

More's the pity, because "Safe House" wastes its novel South African setting -- and a host of capable performers.

In addition to the aforementioned players, Robert Patrick (as a take-charge CIA operative) and Ruben Blades (as a world-weary pal from Frost's past) class up the by-the-numbers proceedings.

Reynolds, in earnest good-guy mode, makes an effective foil for the wily Washington, who revels in the chance to play both sides against the middle. Is Frost really an opportunistic, traitorous sell-out? Or does he have another, somewhat nobler agenda?

Thanks (or, more accurately, no thanks) to "Safe House's" underpowered script, we suspect the truth all too soon.

We also discover something else too soon for our, and the movie's, own good: We don't much care either way.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at or 702-383-0272.