Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
Imagine, for a second, that any one-line premise for a movie can result in what is effectively an infinite number of possible outcomes. Movies are the product of a million tiny decisions – each of them potentially, chaos theory-style, completely affecting the final product. Imagine, now, the film The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which is about the world’s most competent bodyguard being tasked to protect the world’s most competent hitman. There are literally millions of options here – from tone to cast to plot devices to settings to music – that can be combined to make millions of different movies. Granted, these movies are all a little similar, but they’re also mostly (and most importantly) not the same movie.
Follow me so far? Good. So now, let’s explore the premise slightly further. Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was once the world’s highest-rated bodyguard, protecting the world’s richest (and generally most corrupt and fucked-up) from harm in exchange for filthy lucre. A bungled job guarding a Japanese arms dealer has reduced him to protecting cracked out idiots with his banged-up sedan and seen him separated from Amelia (Elodie Yung), an Interpol agent who was also the love of his life until he blamed her for the aforementioned bungle. Nevertheless, Amelia thinks of Bryce right away when she needs a quick fix in order to protect Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s most fearsome hitman and its only hope of indicting the corrupt president of Belarus (Gary Oldman) on human rights charges. The president has an endless amount of Eastern European thugs in long leather jackets ready to die for him, so Bryce and Kincaid (who, it goes without saying, hate each other) have to move fast in order to get to the Hague before the timer hits zero.
How is it that, of all the slight variations and minor tweaks that could possibly happen, The Hitman’s Bodyguard plays out exactly like what you’d assume a 2017 action movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson would play like? How is it possible that, with all the potential variables that one could apply to a project like this one, seemingly not a single one of them was original and interesting in any way? Does this happen accidentally, the simple result of no one seeing the bigger picture until all the pieces are together? Or is it something more depressing – an intentionally derivative and intensely familiar action movie that’s a poster first, a trailer second and a movie dead last?
I’ll admit that the trailer had me fooled. Though hardly original, it seemed to showcase a throwback to ’90s action films that hinged on the chemistry between the leads (mostly in that they hate each other and lob colourful insults back and forth) rather than, say, original storytelling or a movie premise that wasn’t just driving a vehicle into another vehicle. Even that, in itself, would be fine – except that The Hitman’s Bodyguard is just another sausage link off of the Nu Image/Millennium production line. Their founder, Avi Lerner, has made a fortune producing film after film starring semi-washed-up action stars in cookie-cutter productions shot for cheap somewhere in Eastern Europe. There’s more money in The Hitman’s Bodyguard and its stars aren’t quite as washed-up, but that’s about where the differences end.
Reynolds and Jackson are employed to do what they do best: Reynolds is cocky and panicky and loudmouthed while Jackson is apparently unkillable and calls everyone and everything a motherfucker. There should be a baseline of enjoyment just at seeing these people do the thing that we know them to do, and I suppose there is – what enjoyment there is to get from The Hitman’s Bodyguard certainly comes from its stars’ charisma – but the fact is that Reynolds and Jackson have very little chemistry. They mostly seem to each be doing their respective thing in a vacuum. No matter how much the film plays up the begrudging brotherhood between them, they both seem to be doing their own version of jazz hands on opposite sides of the red carpet premiere. The fact is that they could do this in their sleep – and maybe they are, after all, I’ve never seen either of them sleep – and the film still manages to squander their talents somehow.
I have to admit that there’s something comforting about this type of action premise – it’s why movies that sort of came and went in this genre’s heyday are so nostalgically appreciated today in the face of significantly less R-rated action buddy comedies. While it’s obvious that director Patrick Hughes and writer Tom O’Connor have spent countless hours poring over the work of Shane Black, their spin on it is anemic at best. Though ostensibly an action-comedy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard rarely combines both; it’s either the leads bickering somewhere in a pasture or shit exploding in the city while guys with machine guns fall off of corniches, but rarely both. Shot in cheap, gauzy digital usually indicative of a much smaller budget, The Hitman’s Bodyguard has mostly anonymous action scenes, as competent as they are forgettable. (Most of them are car-based, though I will point out one pretty good foot chase between Reynolds and some goons that culminates in a balls-out hardware store duel.)
Really, the best you can hope for with a premise like this one – the best collection of randomized items, as mentioned above – is that the movie will somehow be weird or idiosyncratic enough to overcome the mundanity of its story. The Hitman’s Bodyguard tries for idiosyncratic with the character of Sonia, Kincaid’s jailed wife as portrayed by Salma Hayek. Sonia has been, it seems, jailed for her husband’s sins, and she spends the entire movie imprisoned and spewing venom at her guards like a five-foot, South American, female version of Jackson. It’s certainly Hayek as you’ve never seen her (especially in a flashback where she takes on five drunken bar patrons in slow-motion, slashing their carotid artery to the strains of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” – the song’s second ironic placement in an action movie this year alone), but it’s also pretty pointless – which sums up the long game here pretty adequately.
There’s a version of this movie starring, like, Ryan Kwanten and Samuel L. Jackson (and probably Mickey Rourke in the thankless Oldman role) that would’ve by-passed cinemas entirely and popped up on Netflix between two seasons of prestige TV you’ll never get around to watching. If I’d seen that version, I would not really have been disappointed; it would have been exactly what I expected. The greatest trick The Hitman’s Bodyguard ever pulled was making me believe it would be anything but what it actually is: low-effort, low-reward junk. ■
The Hitman’s Bodyguard opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 18. Watch the trailer here: