Samuel L. Jackson says “motherfucker” many times in The Hitman’s Bodyguard. That’s not surprising—his characters often utter that colorful vulgarity, and few actors are as consistently funny as he is saying it—but it’s hard to remember a movie of his in which it felt so calculated and thus so tiresome. That’s a relatively small problem with this clanking piece of action-comedy junk, but it’s indicative of the film’s overall weaknesses. An assembly line of ostensibly “hip” gestures and snarky attitude, The Hitman’s Bodyguard wants very badly to be a naughty, R-rated guilty pleasure. Nobody tell its makers that it’s mostly just mildly boring.
The film stars Ryan Reynolds as Michael Bryce, a former elite “protection specialist” who has yet to get over the fact that he let a high-profile client die two years ago. Now reduced to being a bodyguard for coked-up corporate executives, he finds a shot at redemption when his ex-girlfriend, Amelia (Elodie Yung), an Interpol agent, asks him to escort a dangerous assassin named Darius Kincaid (Jackson) from a London prison to the Hague to testify against the former president of Belarus (Gary Oldman), who’s on trial for genocide. Michael and Darius despise each other—they’ve had their run-ins in the past—but they have to work together if they’re going to make it to the Netherlands alive.
The challenge of criticizing an irreverent, over-the-top action movie like The Hitman’s Bodyguard is that protesting its smart-ass, blasé bent can feel akin to being the fuddy-duddy who needs to lighten up. But director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) has cast two actors who know how to do this kind of proudly disreputable genre piece very well. Sadly, we’re a long ways away from the inspired snottiness of Deadpool or even the lovably trashy Snakes on a Plane. Instead, Reynolds’ uber-ironic nonchalance and Jackson’s bad-ass swagger are left to marinate in a ho-hum storyline and some pretty dull characters.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard tries relying on a familiar oil-and-water dynamic between its main characters. Michael is the uptight, careful craftsman, always thinking out every step of his plan with sharp precision. Predictably, Darius is the exact opposite, smashing through every scene without fear. This juxtaposition is meant to signal the difference in their professions—the bodyguard needs to be cautious to save lives, while the hitman throws caution to the wind to create chaos—but like many of screenwriter Tom O’Connor’s thematic gambits, it’s rather uninteresting. As a result, we’re left with a wan Midnight Run rip-off without the same comic friction.
Hughes giddily earns his film’s R rating, staging violent action sequences with copious blood. (The Hitman’s Bodyguard has the most fatal headshots since the John Wick movies.) On occasion, like during a simultaneous boat-and-foot chase, the film can stir up some pretty electric momentum. But for as much as The Hitman’s Bodyguard tries to be a bro-tastic mixture of intense spectacle and rat-a-tat-tat bickering, it also aspires to be earnestly emotional, giving both of its leads love interests we’re meant to take seriously. The better of the two is Salma Hayek as Darius’ incarcerated wife, who’s an expert ass-kicker while flashing lethal amounts of cleavage. Hayek taps directly into the film’s loony, pulpy spirit with a knowing wink, but when Hughes slows things down for a little romantic poignancy, it falls terribly flat. (As a sign of The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s lack of nerve, the movie uses two flashbacks to show how Michael and Darius met their lady loves—and, in both cases, they’re scored to knowingly cheesy 1980s ballads that are meant to elicit reflexive guffaws from the hipper-than-thou crowd.)
But the movie isn’t done there in its attempts to be about something. On occasion, Michael and Darius will take a moment to debate the morality of their jobs, with Darius refusing to be seen as wicked just because he kills people. (To his mind, he’s only killing bad people, while Michael has protected plenty of heinous individuals—so who’s really worse?) In theory, these ought to be silly back-and-forth exchanges, but The Hitman’s Bodyguard seems genuinely invested in their argument—a decision that ends up, unintentionally, becoming one of the film’s funniest bits.
A lot of these shortcomings could be forgiven if Reynolds and Jackson’s chemistry was sufficiently entertaining. It isn’t. Their characters are at each other’s throat, but we don’t quite care, and it’s only sporadically hilarious. (The Hitman’s Bodyguard supplies a lame twist about halfway through that’s meant to ramp up their animosity, but it’s weightless.) Consequently, the film feels like competing solo showcases rather than an appealing double act. Reynolds is reduced to doing snarky asides and slow-burn bitching, while Jackson cackles and swears. Honestly, it’s exhausting.
And one final note. As the movie heads to the finish line and our wisecracking heroes descend upon the Hague, a bombing and a choreographed assault take place, sowing havoc and threatening the lives of hundreds of nameless characters played by extras. Escapist piffle like The Hitman’s Bodyguard isn’t required to anticipate what will be going on in the world at the time of its release—that’s impossible to ask of any film—but when a movie is as loud, dumb and disposable as this one is, its incongruence with the tenor of national events only makes its inadequacies starker. I don’t think I would have enjoyed The Hitman’s Bodyguard any week that I saw it. But of all weeks, this was certainly not the one to find out.
Director: Patrick Hughes
Writer: Tom O’Connor
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung, Richard E. Grant
Release Date: August 18, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.