Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson each have catchphrases in The Hitman’s Bodyguard: “Goddamn it” and “Motherfucker,” respectively. Nobody can say that last expletive quite like Jackson, and a good film can find just the right way to use him to punctuate a scene. This is not that movie. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is so desperate to be a funny, violent, and bombastic action film that it throws everything and the kitchen sink at the screen. I could do without the sink.
Reynolds plays top-rated bodyguard Michael Bryce, who finds himself down and out when he loses a client to sniper fire. Once the protector of rich and prominent business figures, he now escorts paranoid executives out of buildings crawling with assassins and explosive traps. His motto used to be “Boring is good,” implying that a day with no possible threats is the best kind of day.
But when faced with missions that involve him doing a lot of killing of hitmen and dashing away from explosions, he seems calm and calculating, with the usual Reynolds snarkiness. He stresses that he is at the bottom rung of the bodyguard list, but how low can you be when dealing with such action-packed scenarios? I wouldn’t exactly call a mission that results in a car exploding in a downtown garage and into city streets a task for a lesser contractor. I’m not sure why he also feels the need to urinate in a bottle inside his car. I probably don’t want to know.
Meanwhile, an evil dictator named Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) is standing trial at the International Court of Justice for massacring his own people, having so far managed to avoid conviction after shady deals with everyone from local thugs to Interpol. Oldman can be a tremendous force, but not when he is saddled behind a thick mustache and an eastern European accent as he is here. There’s a scene in which an Interpol agent demands Dukhovich’s money for helping him, an exchange that could have showcased how intimidating Oldman can be. But rather than have him deliver a juicy bit of piss-off dialogue, the film instead has him stab someone in the hand and blather on about the politics of his country.
The only one who has the evidence to convict the dictator is Darius Kincaid, an imprisoned hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson. He agrees to testify so long as his lethal wife (Salma Hayek) can be released from a Dutch prison, where she spends the entire movie screaming at the guards and boasting about her husband being an unstoppable killing machine. Interpol is compromised during transport and Bryce is called upon by his ex, Interpol agent Amelia (Élodie Yung), to secretly transport Kincaid to the trial. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship between hitman and bodyguard.
As it turns out, that relationship has already been formed. When Reynolds and Jackson first meet, they start fighting and screaming at each other—and they will not stop feuding until the final scene. This would be funny in the vein of 48 Hours, but the actors appear to be winging it in scenes in which the only apparent requirements are screaming and cursing at each other. There’s a moment when Reynolds discovers that it was Jackson who essentially ruined his life by assassinating one of his clients. This should piss him off to a point where he thinks of something really nasty to pull on his current client, but all it results in is even more shouting with even-less-clever insults. The problem with this scene is that these two characters have spent the whole movie screaming and jabbing at each other, so no amount of additional anger displayed can be as effective. I’m surprised the two of them didn’t give up on the dialogue and just snarl and growl at each other unintelligibly.
Jackson and Reynolds do have an undeniable chemistry, even when the movie doesn’t supply them with any great dialogue to share. The funniest moment of the film finds Reynolds struggling to get the radio working in a car while Jackson begins to sing the blues. Faced with Jackson’s annoying singing, Reynolds fires back with light pop. They later find themselves on a bus full of nuns, where Jackson annoys Reynolds further by singing along with the ladies in a gleeful Italian melody.
The two of them have some surprising quickness in the many action scenes they share, effortlessly able to smirk and cackle in between killing bad guys and looking good while they do it. I wish there were more scenes between Jackson and Hayek, who play off each other just as well but have their romance reduced to slow dances set to Foreigner, albeit during a bloody bar brawl.
The film features truckloads of action, with plenty of clever car chases, shootouts, explosions, and some surprisingly bloody moments. But director Patrick Hughes never establishes a vibe or flow to all this chaos, seemingly mixing the tone, soundtrack, and stunts of all sorts of different action pictures into this one film. Reynolds’s jobs are treated with a driving and classy style reminiscent of a James Bond picture meets Ocean’s Eleven. Jackson cackles while being transported by Interpol, only for the film to go dark and intense with a brutal shootout. In order to sell the audience on Jackson not being such a bad guy despite killing people, a snippet of his history is revealed in which he shoots a racist white man who killed a local black preacher, a scene set to the tune of a dramatic choir. Some of these shifts come off as baffling, as is the case when Reynolds is captured by tattooed terrorists and tortured in a neon dungeon that feels like it’s from another movie. The torture is extreme, featuring water and electricity, and the soundtrack puts on heavy metal when Jackson bursts into the room to savage the enemy. And beyond the music and setting, the movie floats between graphic and cartoon violence: how is it that a shootout in the street results in buckets of blood, but Reynolds can smash through a windshield into the street without a scratch on him? Even Jackson’s character looks stunned that he survived such a crash.
I can’t blame The Hitman’s Bodyguard for trying to be absurd and over the top as an action buddy picture. I liked watching Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, but they’re in desperate need of a script that has them do more than be the expected cartoon versions of themselves. The action scenes are fun, but the abundance of their insanity wears so thin that I was exhausted by the time we got to a car chase set to “Black Betty.” And for as overblown as the film wants to be, it overloads on chases and violence to the point of nearly boring with its theatrics, something you never want to feel in a film such as this. This is a movie that can’t find its own voice for how loud it wants to be.
The funniest aspect of the film was the poster that parodied 1992’s The Bodyguard with Reynolds carrying Jackson in the style of Kevin Costner carrying Whitney Houston. There was more cleverness in this campaign than there was in the extended of sequence of Reynolds and Jackson arguing about whether or not you can turn excrement into Kool-Aid.