Denzel Washington & Ryan Reynolds Are an Unlikely Duo in This Spy Thriller

Estimated read time 6 min read

The Big Picture

  • Safe House
    blends action with mystery, providing a fresh take on espionage tropes in a thrilling setting.
  • Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds deliver standout performances, showcasing versatility beyond their usual roles.
  • Director Daniel Espinosa crafts an intense, anxiety-driven action thriller, a type of movie we don’t see as often now that the action genre is dominated by franchise films.

While audiences have always had a vested interest in seeing exciting action films that take advantage of charismatic movie stars, it’s interesting to note how certain pivotal entries within the genre are reflective of the social and political events surrounding their release. It’s hard to differentiate the success of Three Days of the Condor from the anxieties that Americans felt in the post-Watergate era, and it’s similarly hard to evaluate The Matrix from the fear of technological domination in the Y2K era. Great action cinema has the potential to be socially conscious. Unfortunately, this has been harder to recognize in recent years given that the majority of “genre” films released by major studios belong to previously existing franchises. While ostensibly “original” action films are too few and far between, the 2012 thriller Safe House was an underrated espionage thriller that coasted on the star appeal of Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.


Safe House (2012)

A young CIA agent is tasked with looking after a fugitive in a safe house. But when the safe house is attacked, he finds himself on the run with his charge.

Release Date February 7, 2012

Runtime 115 Minutes

Writers David Guggenheim

Studio(s) Relativity Media

Distributor(s) Universal Pictures

What Is ‘Safe House’ About?

Safe House follows two very different CIA operatives who are unexpectedly forced to work together when they both begin to suspect that their employer has malicious intentions, and that there is a conspiracy afoot. The junior officer, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), is charged with protecting a safe house in South Africa that is ready to jump should any insurrection occur. Although his mentor, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), insists that he will one day get to utilize his skills, Weston can’t help but fantasize about gaining a new responsibility in the agency that would place him somewhere else. However, Weston is forced to step up the task when ex-CIA agent Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) surrenders to the local agents and is taken prisoner. While it’s much more of an action-thriller than a political conspiracy film, Safe House incorporates enough mystery to keep the viewers engaged in between its action set pieces. The mystery surrounding Frost’s motivations and past sparks interest from Weston, making him a more relatable character.

Frost had surrendered to the CIA after obtaining a mysterious data drive from rogue MI6 officer Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham), who was promptly killed for his involvement. While the notion of a “mysterious data file” is a recurring trope within espionage movies, the CIA drive secrets serve as the perfect “Macguffin” for Safe House. Weston is motivated to uncover the drive so that he can fulfill his responsibilities and prove himself in the eyes of his employers; Frost, however, has come to regret his role in the CIA, and believes that the information uncovered could prove essential in unraveling a potential conspiracy. It serves as an interesting way of placing the characters in conflict with one another, as they both realize that they’re ultimately pawns when details of the drive’s secrets are revealed.

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Safe House gets much more complicated than one might expect based on the premise alone, as the CIA director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) and lead interrogator Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) take charge of the integration into Frost, sparking backlash from Weston over a perceived lack of integrity. It’s interesting to see the main character in a position where he must question the ethics of his employer, even if it means defending a man he assumes is a dangerous criminal who would not show him the same kindness. While Safe House contains its fair share of action sequences, there’s a specificity to its analysis of espionage procedures that feels indebted to Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann. By grounding the story in at least some semblance of realism, Safe House feels elevated compared to other spy action films.

Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds Have Great Chemistry in ‘Safe House’

Washington is most certainly one of the greatest actors of all-time, as his resume of great performances speaks for itself. While he’s often associated with prestigious award contenders and more artistically minded projects, he’s also starred in such memorable crowd pleasers as Unstoppable and The Equalizer films. Safe House is further proof that Washington can elevate simplistic material, as he imbues Frost with an engaging personality and understandable rationale for acting out against his former employers. While he’s partially inspired by a personal desire for revenge, Frost’s true motivations lie in exposing the system of lies that he once dedicated his life to.

It’s interesting to consider Safe House within the arc of Reynolds’ career, as it was released a few years prior to Deadpool, which turned him into a comedy superstar. While many of his most memorable roles retain the same snarky sensibilities, Reynolds succeeds in showing a more serious side of his personality in Safe House. While Weston certainly has a strong set of skills established by his training, he is a novice when it comes to field activity. His desire to become more than the lowly position he’s been assigned makes him a very relatable character, and allows Reynolds to show his vulnerabilities.

‘Safe House’ Is a Showcase for Director Daniel Espinosa

While his name isn’t always floated among the industry’s best action filmmakers, director Daniel Espinosaproved his merits as a meticulous craftsman with Safe House. The film manages to create a perpetual sense of anxiety throughout, and the set pieces seem to at least take into consideration the practicality of such a high-level operation. The varied set of locations, including many throughout the United States, allows Safe House’s action to avoid getting repetitive; it all leads to a propulsive final shootout that reaches surprisingly emotional levels thanks to a charged conversation between Frost and Weston.

Although it was relatively successful at the time of its release, Safe House feels like the type of self-serious action thriller that the industry doesn’t make anymore. While these types of straightforward genre thrillers are occasionally seen on streaming, they’re relatively absent in theaters due to the overabundance of franchise content. Given the radical changes within the industry in the decade since its release, Safe House may not have been appreciated as much as it deserved to have been. It’s a relative outlier that now feels like a hidden gem.

Safe House is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.

Watch on Prime Video