“Take two excellent performers, put them in an enclosed space, and watch what happens next” has been a winning formula in the past. People who are fun to watch, who inhabit characters with their own energy and bring life to the written word, often soar to new heights when given a capable peer to play off of. We’ve seen Paul Newman and Robert Redford do it twice, we’ve watched countless Oscar nominees born from pairings of skilled actors both comedic and dramatic. We’ve also, from time to time, seen it bomb.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a film that feels like it always knew it was paint-by-numbers and brought in heavy talent to compensate. Samuel L. Jackson is at the point in his career where he gets hired to be a comedic version of Samuel L. Jackson in a lot of films, and Ryan Reynolds – while having more calibration in the fundamentals of a character – will always be pitching hyper-articulate motormouthed insults, observational comedy about minutiae, instant corrections or addenda, and oftentimes a terribly serene rage. You know coming into this movie exactly what it is – two hours of boilerplate action comedy using Jackson and Reynolds to cover for its lack of creativity.
This is in fact a painfully uncreative film, where efforts to veer off the beaten path do so only in ways that can’t be reasonably explained. Much of the time it seems aware that it’s a comedy (ostensibly) but sometimes the film has tricked itself into believing it’s a legitimate action film. Not so. The trail of bodies left in our protagonists’ wake is one long droning punchline for any moment the writing couldn’t cover, and boy there are a lot of those.
Reynolds is Michael Bryce, triple-A bodyguard – the best of the best, until a last-second assassination destroyed his reputation. Two years later, he resents his now ex-girlfriend, believing she leaked the name of his client and compromised his career, leaving him on cleanup duty for coked-out lawyers and other particularly unsavory (and thrifty) clients. Jackson is Darius Kincaid, world-class hitman, in custody of Interpol and about to take a plea bargain to testify against Vladislav Dukhovich at the International Criminal Court. Dukhovich has expunged any other credible witnesses, and Kincaid’s delivery in the next 27 hours is all that stands between the tyrannical Belarusan leader and a return to power.
Afrer a mole in Interpol alerts Dukhovich and Kincaid narrowly escapes an attempt on his life that destroys the Interpol convoy, his handler Amelia Roussel calls up the only person she can imagine capable of protecting Kincaid long enough to get him to court – her ex, Bryce. Together, Bryce and Kincaid must successfully elude Dukhovich’s men and travel from England to the Netherlands before the deadline elapses. Multiple missteps en route and Interpol’s inability to secure information means they never elude Dukhovich’s men, instead constantly getting swarmed by a goon squad at every turn.
Salma Hayek provides some moments of levity off to herself as Kincaid’s wife, but she’s just doing the funny Salma Hayek routine – fiery over-the-top Latina, swearing in Spanish, you know the drill. Effectively sequestered from the other characters for most of the movie, she doesn’t get the opportunity to jump in and cause mayhem herself – the one time we get to see that, in flashback, suggests the makings of a far more entertaining film that never came to pass. Elodie Yung is covering the role of Agent Roussel and has the unkind task of being the serious one in a film that doesn’t know what that means. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, has been tapped as Dukhovich, a total waste of a talented actor filling a role anyone could have occupied and doing it with no material to work with.
I said the film is two hours, and it feels every minute of it. At best, the movie gets laughs out of the fact that both Reynolds and Jackson are great performers, but here each one is basically doing his own thing in the vicinity of the other. Sometimes they trade off, sometimes they overlap, but rarely do we see anything like emergent comedy arising from their interactions. Quite the opposite, Kincaid takes time out to attempt to serve as relationship advisor for Bryce, and basically every moment spent on the idea that Bryce and Roussel should get back together is awkward and flat. It’s never not clear that the film is trading heavily on the charisma of its two leads, and while they might have gotten away with it in a shorter film – or at least one that wasn’t trying to be so over-the-top with bland action sequences – by stretching it to two hours the result is essentially a wasted 30 minutes or more.
As for that action, some shots are painfully poorly composited – effects work needs to be better than this in 2017. The antagonists are all generic Eastern European baddies in hoodies – the height of bland and uninteresting. Their leader, Ivan, is the same thing but with a short beard so you can pick him out. He’s got no character either. We check in far too often on Dukhovich and his mole, suggesting there will be more investigation than actually occurs and feeling out of place in a movie that could have simply worked on a better frontline antagonist and – not unlike another Gary Oldman film, Air Force One – left the evil political figure the badguys want freed as an afterthought, a MacGuffin.
When you think the movie’s over, don’t worry, it isn’t – it decides on some late-stage character development that feels trite and unearned, followed by another 15-20 minute action setpiece we definitely didn’t need. You know from the very beginning how this will end, and the film’s token attempts to subvert the goings-on onscreen are so painfully transparent and limited in scope as to effectively caption such scenes with “by the way this is what will happen now.” My experience, at a live showing, was occasional waves and spurts of amused laughter splashing across the audience, but many more expanses wherein only one or two people chuckled amid silence.
The whole reminds me of something I read about Will Smith; that he has an employee who touches up scripts for his movies to make him sound “more like Will Smith.” I feel like similar professionals were engaged on behalf of Reynolds and Jackson, bringing to mind the inescapable sense that any number of performers who follow a similar practice could have been slotted in by the studio and nothing would have changed significantly. Convert Reynolds’s incredulous “why” into a classic Smith “Aw hell naw!” and you have the same level of entertainment – the characters these actors have built in the popular consciousness, presented next to one another in the hope that somehow retreading both the clichés of the genre and the greatest hits of their individual portfolios will be a magic formula for success.
Who says it isn’t, I suppose? I mean, I didn’t want to go to it, but they’ve got the money for my seat at the theatre nonetheless. At a certain point, I suppose, this is all it takes.