I don't have any hidden microphones in the offices of Universal Studios, but I think it is a fair bet, given Denzel Washingston's credit as Executive Producer of Safe House, that at some point or other someone pitched the film as a cross between Training Day and The Bourne Identity. It shares with the former the basic plot structure of an older, more experienced veteran educating an eager but inexperienced newcomer into the more cynical aspects of their work. It shares with the latter the thematic motif of a talented covert agent gradually becoming aware that the system he works within is littered with corrupt souls who are morally indistinguishable from the terrorists and criminals he is assigned to fight.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, a one-time CIA agent who has gone rogue and is now considered a dangerous threat to national security. As the film opens, he is in South Africa receiving a computer chip with evidence of corruption and illegal activities in each of the world's intelligence agencies. It is indicative of the film's ideology that the MacGuffin chip has evidence not just against one government group that would try to kill him but against everyone. It's not that there are corrupt individuals out to silence Frost, it's that the whole system of espionage is corrupt. One cannot be a spy, the film argues, and not be morally bankrupt. Stay in the business long enough, the villain rationalizes, and you will inevitably have mistakes or "bad calls" that need to be hidden from the public eye by killing those who could hold you accountable.

Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost

Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost

Frost does not have the chip for too long before he is indeed being shot at (by mercenaries who, in one of the film's several plot holes, are later revealed to be working under the direction of someone who has not yet been informed that Frost has surfaced). After the first of the film's lengthy chase sequences, Frost surrenders himself to the American Consulate as a means of escaping those chasing him. Cut to CIA headquarters where it is determined that the rogue agent should be taken to a safe house—a secret hideout under agency control to be used in emergency situations—where he can be tortured (or "harshly interrogated") for information. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, whose job it is to maintain the safe house in the middle of nowhere and who is itching to get off the sidelines and into the throes of some real, more exciting, spy work. It is to Weston's safe house that Frost is brought, and it is not too long before Frost's interrogators are dead and Weston is trying to flee the assassins while keeping Frost from getting away.

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Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston

Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston

The core of the film fluctuates between more chases and fights (filmed in the now requisite shaky, hand-held camera style and teal filter coloring) and discussions between Frost and Weston about the meaning of their profession (and whether or not Weston is cut out for it). In the best of these, Frost simultaneously consoles and mocks Weston by telling him that his girlfriend will believe any lie he tells her but that he will eventually leave her anyway because of the inability to have a normal domestic life in the profession he aspires to practice. In this scene and a later exchange between Frost and a forger (who passes for as close to a friend as a man like him can have), we see hints of a better, more thoughtful film—one more interested in genuinely exploring the psychological toll of guilt and disillusionment instead of simply referencing them in quiet interludes to foreshadow (as though foreshadowing were necessary) Weston's inevitable change of heart.

Brendan Gleeson as David Barlow

Brendan Gleeson as David Barlow

Genres run in cycles and we seem to be in the middle of one that insists that action protagonists be anti-(establishment) heroes, whose adherence to personal codes of conduct mark them as morally superior to the society that created but cannot control them. But here again, Safe House can't decide whether where to cast its own allegiance. Frost urges Weston to be a better man than he was, ostensibly because he sees something other than naked ambition for advancement in the younger agent. What that something might be isn't entirely clear, especially given a showdown at a South African soccer stadium where Weston assaults several guards rather than let Frost escape and draws gunfire endangering the lives of civilians, including children. He shoots another guard and tries to blame it on Frost, only changing his story when he is informed that there is videotape of the shooting showing a white man was the instigator. Hear enough lies, Frost opines, and even the truth begins to sound like a lie. Speak enough lies, and you risk no longer being able to tell the difference.

Nora Arnezeder as Ana

Nora Arnezeder as Ana

If the audience has a surrogate in the film, it is neither Weston nor Frost but Weston's girlfriend, Ana (Nora Arnezeder), who seems less upset that her boyfriend participates in torturing people for a living than that he lied to her about it. Maybe Ana really does represent us. Maybe today's audiences don't need heroes who, if they can't admire, they can at least respect. Maybe it is a sign of our maturity that we accept that in a politically and morally complex world we can't tell the good guys from the bad guys just by examining their behavior. Maybe the best we can ask for from those who protect us from evil is a handsome smile and a promise that their lies be well intentioned ones.

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Maybe, but I hope not.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Toward the end of the film Tobin tells Matt to "be better than me." Do you see any evidence that Matt will be (or already is) better than Tobin? In what way?
  2. Tobin says that if you hear enough lies, even the truth begins to sound like a lie. What do you think he means by that? Do you believe it? Can exposing yourself to enough "spin" or deception actually blunt your ability to recognize truth?
  3. Does Matt change? What is his highest priority or goal at the beginning of the film? In the middle? At the end?
  4. While watching a character being tortured, Matt asks whether or not the interrogation technique is "legal." Does the answer to this question matter? Is torture ever morally justified?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Safe House is rated R for pervasive and intense action violence and some language. There are enough explosions, car chases, gun battles, and hand-to-hand combat scenes to fill three movies. While little of the violence is gory by modern standards, its cumulative effect is somewhat desensitizing. Twice we see characters (two different ones) kill someone by snapping his neck, and at least one of the shootings occurs in close up. Civilians, including children, are exposed to threatening situations in more than one instance. One scene depicts a character being tortured by having a wet cloth placed over his head and water poured down his throat to simulate drowning. The use of profane or obscene language was not quite as extensive.

Safe House
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(5 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for strong violence throughout and some language)
Directed By
Daniel Espinosa
Run Time
1 hour 55 minutes
Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patrick
Theatre Release
February 10, 2012 by Universal Pictures
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