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Movie Review

Matt Weston thought the CIA would be more exciting. How could he not? What with movies about the agency chock-full of trench coats, hidden cameras, foggy rendezvous points and cars with ejector seats. But not everyone gets to go all cloak and dagger right out of CIA school. You gotta work your way up to that big-screen stuff. The first rung on Matt's career ladder? Being, essentially, a house sitter.

He's in charge of watching one of the CIA's many safe houses—places of refuge all around the world where agents can scramble to when things get prickly, or they can quietly and efficiently interrogate the occasional captive.

Thing is, these safe houses don't get used as much as you might think. So Matt quietly and efficiently collects the mail and tidies the place up a bit. Then he passes the time mainly by throwing a tennis ball against a bare wall, hoping for something to happen. Anything.

Hasn't Matt heard the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for"?

After a full year of being posted at a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, Matt finally receives his first prison—, er, guest. Agents tote in Tobin Frost, a one-time CIA spook who now sells state secrets to the highest bidder. He was practically a legend when he was with the CIA—a master manipulator, it was whispered—and his reputation's only gotten bigger since. The guy could probably sell timeshares in Guantanamo.

But his jail—, er, hosts, aren't planning on falling for any of his mind tricks this time. They know Tobin's got something very valuable stashed away, and they're determined to get it out of him one way or another.

As Matt watches, they begin to waterboard Tobin.

There's a disturbance outside. Intruders invade the safe house and begin blasting the agents. Pretty soon, the only folks inside who are still alive are Matt, Tobin and the killers.

Tobin, still tied up from the waterboarding session, turns to Matt.

"You are responsible for your houseguest," he says. "I am your houseguest."

It's not exactly protocol for a low-level agent to steal away with a duplicitous and dangerous turncoat. But this isn't exactly a typical situation. And so the two charge out into the streets, with Matt perhaps wondering if maybe there shouldn't be quite so much excitement in his new CIA job.

Positive Elements

Thou shalt not lie.

That's what the Bible tells us, but most of the folks we see in Safe House break that commandment every day—every hour—as part of their jobs. They take advantage, Tobin says, of "people's desire to believe."

Most of us understand that in the service of one's country, certain rules change, certain commandments seem to shift. Murder, for instance, isn't the word we use for what happens when soldiers shoot to kill. And lie doesn't mean quite the same thing while deep undercover in Tehran as it does when you've scarfed the last cookie from the cookie jar. We have come to pragmatically understand the need for intelligence gathering, and sometimes gathering that intelligence involves (we assume) crossing into (otherwise) unethical territory.

But while all that may be true, Safe House tells us there's still a cost involved. Tobin tells Matt that the more you lie, the easier it becomes—and that if you lie to everyone long enough you lose sight of the truth altogether. And Tobin—jaded, on-the-run Tobin—seems to be Exhibit A.

But Tobin finds in Matt an agent who's not been corrupted by the lies yet—an agent who still wants to do the right thing. When circumstances force Matt to flee, he meets his girlfriend one last time and tells her the real reason he's in South Africa. She's furious at having been lied to, and Matt understands. He still gives her a wad of cash and tells her to flee—for her own safety. Simultaneously, even when it seems that Tobin's pursuers have CIA connections—meaning that someone in Matt's own agency is trying to kill them both—Matt tries to trust the agency, following orders as best he can.

[Spoiler Warning] Matt's desire to do the right thing impresses Tobin, and he entrusts Matt with the information he's been carrying—a list of crooked agents in a number of worldwide spy organizations. "Be better than me," he urges Matt. "Be better than me."

And Matt is. Despite destroying his career and putting his life from that point forward in serious jeopardy, he releases the list—revealing an avalanche of corruption that never would've surfaced otherwise. Is it a disaster for the agencies involved? Yes. Would it have been wise to go about fixing the problem another way? Perhaps. But in a business full of (necessary) lies, Matt never loses sight of the importance of the truth—and there's something honorable about that.

Spiritual Content

The film closes with the Jay-Z/Kanye West song "No Church in the Wild," which contains a number of references to religion, none of them particularly positive. "We formed a new religion," raps West, for instance. "No sins as long as there's permission."

Sexual Content

Matt and his girlfriend are shown in the shower together. We see the woman's back. We also see them in their underwear. As they talk at a café, she asks whether he'd like to get back in bed with her. He says he'd love to, but he's got to go to work. The two kiss.

Tobin wonders aloud whether Matt's main squeeze is a girl or a guy. But "I don't judge," he tells Matt.

There are crass sexual references on "No Church in the Wild."

Violent Content

For an organization that prides itself on discretion, the CIA can't be happy about how things go down here. There are scads of shoot-outs, fistfights, car chases and explosions—all of which are bound to raise participants' profiles.

Tobin shoots and kills several folks who mean him harm. He snaps the neck of one. He sticks a barrel in Matt's ear, but before he pulls the trigger shifts his aim to the concrete wall behind Matt's head. (The close-proximity blast makes Matt's ear bleed.)

A double-dealing MI6 agent gets shot in a car. (We see the bullet hole in his forehead and bright-red blood spattered on the broken windshield.) A Tobin doppelgänger is gunned down by assassins. A man making a false ID for Tobin is killed, along with his innocent family.

Matt and Tobin beat up (and possibly kill) several security guards. Soccer fans, hearing gunshots, panic and stampede, barreling over at least one helpless woman. Matt strangles a man to death. Two people fight in the midst of broken glass, using large shards as vicious weapons. Countless souls are gunned down—often polished off with a gratuitous bullet to the brain after already absorbing loads of lead. Matt and his pursuers embark on a lengthy and dangerous car chase, involving crash after crash after crash. Tobin and Matt fight in a moving car. A car blows up. Grenades are thrown. People fall through roofs.

Tobin relates a story of how he killed an innocent man so the CIA could plant a new guy in his sensitive position. "Don't kill innocent people, Matthew," Tobin warns.

A CIA agent seems prepared to use a knife to torture a prisoner. I've already mentioned that agents waterboard Tobin.

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word in dialogue, another rapped on "No Church in the Wild." We hear four or five s-words and six or seven uses of "h‑‑‑." Other profanity includes "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Tobin is a wine connoisseur. He's impressed when an MI6 agent serves him a 40-year-old varietal, and he gushes over the vintage given to him by a friend. "You even let it breathe," he says, and the two reminisce about how, once upon a time, a bottle of cheap liquor was all they'd needed to be happy.

We see others imbibe whiskey and beer. We learn that Matt's parents and sister died in a car crash—triggered by his father driving while under the influence.

Other Negative Elements


"People don't want the truth anymore, Matt," Tobin says. "It's messy. It keeps people up at night."

It's a pretty interesting dichotomy in the confines of Safe House. Here we have an agency tasked with uncovering uncomfortable truths … but naturally keeps its own equally uncomfortable secrets quite hidden. The bad guys aren't altogether evil here—they don't cackle maniacally in their secret lairs as they inspect their zombie armies. No, these villains are simply folks who've made so many compromises they kinda forgot what right and wrong are. And through Tobin we're shown what it all means. As he said, when you lie for a living you can forget what the truth is. When you kill for a living you can lose sight of the preciousness of life.

That makes Safe House, in something of a backdoor sort of way, a repudiation of moral relativism. But it doesn't make it safe.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

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Discussion Topics

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Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost; Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston; Vera Farmiga as Catherine Linklater; Brendan Gleeson as David Barlow; Sam Shepard as Harlan Whitford; Rubén Blades as Carlos Villar; Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau


Daniel Espinosa ( )


Universal Pictures



Record Label



In Theaters

February 10, 2012

On Video

June 5, 2012

Year Published



Paul Asay

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