Let me make clear what The Hitman’s Bodyguard isn’t: it isn’t fresh. It isn’t particularly unique. The story, about a bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) who has to escort the assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) who happens to be his archrival to the Hague so he can testify against a monstrous dictator (Gary Oldman), is more than a little reminiscent of Midnight Run. It isn’t incompetent, but it isn’t technically dazzling, either. While the film has some strong, fun action sequences, there’s nothing here that’s on the level of, say, that breathtaking oner from Atomic Blonde a few weeks ago. Half the time, it isn’t all that funny, either, leaning on broad Dad wit borne from irony and cognitive dissonance.
Are we clear on that? Good. Because what this movie is is a solid excuse to let two very funny, highly credible action stars bounce off each other, and by God, do they carry it. Reynolds and Jackson are an amazing on-screen pair, electric presences on their own who click so perfectly together that it becomes depressing to think about how Deadpool will never be able to hang with Nick Fury in a movie.
Not that it’s one-to-one; in fact, the roles are kind of reversed. Reynolds plays Michael Bryce as a smartass straight-A student, a highly capable know-it-all who prides himself on professionalism and AAA-rated service. Of course, he can’t technically call himself “AAA-rated” after a client gets killed on his watch, sending him on a downward spiral that causes him to push everyone away—including his girlfriend, INTERPOL agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), whom he blames for the client’s death. Despite being an emotional shell of himself, however, he’s still the best you can get. When Amelia has a prisoner that needs to be transported and INTERPOL seems to have sprung a leak, Bryce is her first and only call.
Unfortunately, even if Darius Kincaid hadn’t tried to kill Bryce nearly a couple dozen times over in the past, his style seems precision-engineered to piss Bryce off. Jackson’s Kincaid is as noble as hitmen can get, but he’s drawn to righteous violence and sees no need to keep things clean or professional. The man is a hammer; to him, every problem looks like something you shoot in the face. Repeatedly. Without silencers, because they’re apparently for pussies.
“By the book” vs. “loose cannon” is a classic buddy movie setup, and while the script (credited to Tom O’Connor; his only other credit is the DTV Bruce Willis flick Fire With Fire) is content to coast on that, Reynolds and Jackson wring everything they can out of it. It helps that Reynolds has one of the best deadpans and most hilariously expressive faces in the business, and that Jackson is at his level best when he’s going loud. When they’re on screen together, they complement each other perfectly; the only way you could get better banter out of these two is if Shane Black were somehow involved.
The actual path of Bryce and Kincaid going from rivals to friends develops just as you might expect. There’s hatred, softened into mere annoyance, followed by begrudging mutual respect that gets a little less begrudging as the movie wears on. At one point Kincaid tells Bryce that he should be willing to take a bullet for him, with Bryce insisting that he’ll never have to. Guess what goes down during the climax.
Still, there’s an unspoken awareness that you’ve seen it before and a concentrated effort to get the boring but necessary beats out of the way as fast and as entertainingly as possible. The souring of the central relationship that marks the third act turn, for instance, develops not with a painful betrayal but with a hysterically petty shouting match (replete with the best reading of “EAT MY ASS” that I’ve ever heard). The rift itself couldn’t have taken up more than 3-5 minutes of screentime, and Bryce gets over it after an amazingly staged, self-absorbed soliloquy that Reynolds sells the holy shit out of despite its absurd circumstances. When the film does see fit to give the pair a serious moment to play, it’s never overwrought; they come down to brief moments of introspection that shore up a light “order vs. chaos” theme, center the two protagonists, and build a solid foundation for that de rigueur begrudging mutual respect.
I cannot overstate how good Reynolds and Jackson are in this movie, which makes it a bit of a drag that the characters surrounding them are so bland. I brought up Shane Black before; if Black is known for anything besides his razor-sharp dialogue and his obsession with pulp fiction, it’s how all his characters pop off the page, instantly distinctive. It’s hard to master it like Black has and create people like Milo, or Mr. Frying Pan, or even the kid at the beginning of The Nice Guys who goes through an entire emotional arc in the space of a short opening credit sequence. It’s nearly as hard, however, to imagine being much worse about this than The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
Most of the side characters are frustratingly stock. As Kincaid’s wife, Salma Hayek is the only other cast member to make a lasting impression, even if it basically amounts to swearing up a storm in most of her scenes and being absurdly violent in the others. Elodie Yung, rock-solid as Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil, holds her own as Amelia, but she ultimately doesn’t get much more to do than be a love interest who happens to be capable of putting foot to ass when needed. Meanwhile, Joaquim de Almeida plays Amelia’s boss and mentor; you immediately know his character is the leak because he’s played by Joaquim de Almeida (which, mercifully, the movie doesn’t hold to the vest for long). He finds some space for a little complexity in his character’s relationship with Amelia, but it’s a moral victory at best. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman doesn’t even try for such nuance as the villain, and his Eastern European henchmen, including the lead goon played by God-knows-who, just seem to blend into each other. In fact, I could’ve sworn that lead goon died in one action scene, only for him to seemingly come back for another without fanfare. I doubt it’s some Space Mutiny-esque continuity lapse, though; just awful casting and characterization leading to some confusion.
In a way, it reminds me of xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, another action movie that was buoyed entirely on character and attitude. That movie had a far more memorable cast, but this movie is far more straightforward, and its action sequences are easier to follow and, in turn, way more fun. While his visuals run neither cold nor hot, Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3, Red Hill) demonstrates a strong sense of pacing (even though I expected nearly everything that happened in the movie, I was never bored) and does a great job of gradually building the scale of each setpiece until the third act is all-out chaos. In fact, just when you think Hughes has hit his climax, he goes back in for a batshit encore that somewhat evokes the apocalyptic end of Stone Cold.
And I think that’s the touchstone here, or at least adjacent to it (Stone Cold was way darker and meaner than this). Between the two leads and Hughes’ competence, the film feels less like a mediocre buddy flick and more like a throwback to a more innocent, superficial time in action movies, when tropes weren’t tropes, common sense wasn’t necessary for the plot, and great banter plus satisfying bloodshed seemed to be all you needed. Today, it’s a cheap-ish Millennium Films production that would probably be VOD bait if not for the two superheroes in front of the camera. In 1991, however, this would’ve been an instant cult classic. All the cool kids in junior high would’ve seen it, flipped, and carried the memory of it into today as one of those secret, flawed greats that nobody ever talks about and nobody seems to make anymore.
Yes, it could have been better. I wish it was better. I feel like I need to advocate for action movies to be better than this. I’m not gonna lie, though: If I’m ever having a shitty night and I see The Hitman’s Bodyguard on streaming, I’ll be all over it. Sometimes that’s enough.