The last time we saw Denzel Washington he was helping corral an out-of-control train in 2010’s Unstoppable. Now he’s helping save what could have been a train wreck of a clichéd action-spy thriller.

Without Washington, Safe House would have had all the ingredients required for an abject failure– a first time screenwriter, a first-time director, a lousy release date (Safe House isn’t exactly Valentine’s Day fare), and Ryan Reynolds. (No offense, Ryan, but unless you’re making googly-eyes with Sandra Bullock, you haven’t had the best track record lately.)

But Safe House not only stays afloat, it actually comes off as a solid film, worthy of being in the same conversation as its cousins The Bourne Identity and Spy Game.

Reynolds plays fresh-faced spook Matt Weston, charged with babysitting a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. With the scarcity of action Reynolds sees, it’s surprising he’s not tempted to just hang a ‘CLOSED’ sign in the door and hit the neighborhood bar.

Then one day, all hell breaks loose as rogue agent Tobin Frost (Washington) shows up at the American Consulate in Cape Town after almost a decade underground. When he’s transferred to Weston’s safe house, he’s followed almost instantly by a dozen shady commando-types armed to the teeth with machine guns and flash grenades. Weston gets Frost out alive, but it turns out that was the easy part. Now he has to find out how the safe house was compromised and who’s behind it, all while keeping Frost from going back underground.

The higher-ups back at Langley aren’t sure what’s going on, and when they give Weston the ol’ “We’ll take it from here, son,” he quickly realizes that he’s on his own.

Swedish Director Daniel Espinosa proves himself to be highly capable, especially with veteran cinematographer Oliver Wood (the Bourne trilogy) by his side. He gives the movie a Tony Scott-like look– drenched in over-saturated colors with a raw graininess. He also wisely keeps the action going almost non-stop– you don’t even get the slightest chance to breathe and think about how derived some of the plot is.

Story-wise, there’s not much new here that you haven’t seen in any number of spy films already; someone in the CIA is corrupt, the new kid takes it upon himself to find answers, and he always stays a step-and-a-half ahead of the bad guys… you know the drill. But freshman writer David Guggenheim’s rep is spared considerably due to the solid performances across the board.

Reynolds does enough here to not only redeem himself after the whole Green Lantern debacle but to show that he may actually have a promising future outside of chick flicks. The top-notch supporting actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard, all shine, too– giving even more credibility to the proceedings.

It’s Washington, though, who pilots this ship with a such cool precision that his resumé remains near-perfect. By the time the dust settles, Safe House has not only avoided becoming just another throw-away piece of winter crap, it stands as further testament to the fact that Denzel Washington is a pretty safe bet at the cineplex.

4/5 stars