(Caution – mild spoilers ahead!)
As my significant other and I walked out of the theater, with my eyes and my smile wide, both of us gushing with praise for the movie we’d just seen, I stopped at one point and mused out loud: “I hope other people liked that as much as we did.”
It turns out, as I discovered checking the ratings on my phone on the way back to our car, that they did enjoy it – as long as they weren’t a critic. The Hitman’s Bodyguard did quite well among audiences, but in many cases, it earned less than (converted) 50% from the big-name reviewers.
Does every movie have to be a groundbreaking work of art? What’s so wrong with a movie that’s a solid, entertaining piece that relies on the tropes of its genre without overusing them (or lampshading them to offset their effect)? What is wrong with that?!
As Samuel L. Jackson’s character tells his wife early in the movie: “Not a thing, baby.”
The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an action-comedy film starring Ryan Reynolds as the straight man, and Jackson’s character as the chaotic. It reads like a buddy-cop movie, only neither is a cop – Michael Bryce (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid (Jackson) are a former professional bodyguard and an incarcerated hitman, respectively. Kincaid is called upon to testify as a witness at the International Criminal Court, and his transport to the Hague is arranged through Interpol; but when it becomes (explosively!) clear that Interpol has been compromised, Bryce is called upon as an only-hope last resort to get Kincaid from Britain to Holland… if Bryce doesn’t kill Kincaid first, that is.
Complicating matters – and in fact, the source of Bryce’s, shall we say, annoyance with Kincaid – is that Kincaid is convinced that he himself is the only person competent enough to get himself to the ICC in the time remaining, and constantly tries to shake off Bryce for the first half of the movie. Kincaid has no interest in fleeing his own justice – in return for his testimony, his wife, who he loves unquestionably, will be allowed to walk free. And in Kincaid’s defense, he does prove far more able than even the “highly-trained” guards initially assigned to him; as his wife Sonia, played by Salma Hayek, puts it, he is like a cucaracha – a cockroach, nigh impossible to kill.
But Kincaid is up against a lot more than he bargained for – namely, the former Eastern European dictator who he would testify against, and the dozens of heavily-armed men he’s secretly commanding. It’s going to take Kincaid learning from Bryce’s knowledge and careful planning, and Bryce learning from Kincaid’s off-the-cuff beat-them-to-the-punch lawlessness, if either one is going to make it out of their journey alive.
Tropes are not bad if done tastefully, and while this movie certainly uses tropes, it weaves them together to create a splendidly fun work nonetheless. Though I disagree with the critics, I can understand why they would rate “cliches” poorly; given the sheer number of movies they must watch, they truly have seen it all already, and are thus easily bored by any movie that doesn’t greatly challenge them. But for the average Joe who doesn’t see every single movie ever, tropes not only don’t get in the way, but can in fact be enjoyable, at minimum by essentially flagging a film as being of a favored genre. The only exception to the latter is if a trope is overused, but this can usually be excused by hanging an appropriate lampshade. (See: later in the movie, regarding Kincaid’s vocabulary, Bryce comments to a random bartender that “this guy has single-handedly ruined the word ‘motherfucker’ for me”.) Other than that one catchphrase, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does a nice job of taking very old well-known action tropes and putting them in a bit of a new light; enough to highlight the plot, without beating us over the head with them.
The main trope that keeps this plot moving is the personality clash between the two leads – but the banter is so brilliant that one could care less if it’s been done before. The chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson is simply excellent – they play so well off of one another, and the barbs being thrown at every turn had us rolling in laughter in our theater seats. Both of the actors’ characters definitely have their own abrasive charms before they meet, that could each carry a film on their own – but things pick up beautifully when the two characters have their first on-screen meeting (at which point it becomes clear from their initial, violent reactions, that the characters already have past history…). From that point forward, the mud-slinging both accelerates and crescendos as Kincaid and Bryce constantly attempt to prove their points over the other throughout their perilous mission.
The acting by both men is excellent as well. If your only prior experience with Ryan Reynolds is as the deranged character of Deadpool, then you may not expect him to excel at playing the straight man in the equation here – and not only the straight, but a lovable, by-the-book has-been besides. Reynolds, however, shines in this role; his emoting from Bryce’s earlier top-of-his-game days to all of Bryce’s character development is really believable, and makes us really root for the character.
But if Reynolds shines, then Samuel L. Jackson positively glows in his role as Darius Kincaid – a man who seems to be deprived of morals, and yet may be the most moralistic person in the movie. (Not to mention that Jackson himself wrote the song he sings in the car to Bryce – “Nobody Gets Out Alive”!) Kincaid comes across as one who has reached a certain form of enlightenment – he has no qualms being violent but, as we discover, it’s only to those who deserve it. Even so, both men have lessons to learn from the other; each realizes that the other has good ideas, and comes to respect and appreciate each other’s points of view. Amidst all the violence and bodies, watching Reynolds and Jackson portray their developing characters is a treat.
The other roles in this film are great, but none nearly as spectacular as Salma Hayek’s Sonia Kincade. I loved her. Her dramatics, take-no-shit attitude, sexy violence, and foul Spanish mouth are fantastic, even if you’re not a hispanohablante like myself. She adds a whole new layer to the movie all by her lonesome. It’s overwhelmingly clear why Darius Kincade loves his wife so much.
Gary Oldman’s Vladislav Dukhovich is alright; classic genocidal-dictator villainy in a Russian accent, done well enough. Relative-newbie Élodie Yung plays Interpol agent Amelia Roussel, who also happens to be Bryce’s love interest; her role is not very large but quite well-acted, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her in the future. The Interpol mole Jean Foucher, played by Joaquim de Almeida, is appropriately shady and smarmy – enough that, if you know the tropes, you’ll be able to pick him out as the leaker straight away.
Another thing this film truly excels at is the sprinkling of details throughout. A good action movie does not forget a single detail, and this one is no different, from the wounds suffered by the characters in the movie coming back for the entire length of the film (Foucher’s hand begins to bleed again in his fight with Roussel, and Kincaid is still limping even as he corners Dukhovich!), to hidden visual clues which certain folks will love to spy. Sharp-eyed audience members will delight in noting several connections with Kincaid’s ravens tattoo, and even sharper-eyed viewers might spot the namesake of that bar in Honduras. On this note, I have to give The Hitman’s Bodyguard special commendation.
As far as the action goes – it’s nothing really new, for sure; but I gotta say… it’s better than Deadpool. (Gasp! I know.) This is the part of the movie that the big reviewers took off the most points for. We’ve all seen car shootout-chases before; we’ve already seen car bombs disrupting armored-car motorcades; we’ve certainly seen one guy disarming another of his gun via gratuitous hand combat… and almost all of the other action scenarios portrayed herein.
But – big “but” here: it… is… still… breathtaking! There’s plenty of “wow” moments to keep us entertained, from riding a motorcycle on the bleeding edge of a canal in Amsterdam, to Reynolds having to use improvised weapons and environments to take down the Russian-squawking baddies coming after him (a rolling pin and a hot grill in a restaurant; and an axe, nail gun, and roll-of-chain noose in what looks to be a hardware store). Despite a lack of action ingenuity, none of it manages to come across as monotonous – and that is the key part of the action here. It even stands up to a second viewing, and to having seen another well-executed action movie immediately before. It may not do anything novel, but it is extremely gratifying, and that is ultimately what matters.
Other non-groundbreaking, yet-satisfactory elements: the visuals are lovely and fitting enough to give some polish, while staying in the background and not taking the spotlight from the comedy. Among all of the sweeping urban aerials, the one chase scene set against the gorgeous backdrop of Amsterdam is particularly thrilling. The music fits the bill, too – typical jazzy cop scoring could have been cloned straight from the portfolio of Atli Örvarsson, who has provided music for Law & Order: Los Angeles, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Fire.
Some say that there was a lot more than could have philosophically been explored with this film, or even that no exploration was done at all. I’d argue that this film did just enough. While Kincaid giving Bryce (legitimate, even in real life) advice on how to win back Roussel isn’t exactly stimulating, he does make the very valid point that all of the so-called exciting things he does “don’t mean shit if I can’t tell Sonia about it!”. Even more poignant, however, is the other philosophical question he asks of Bryce: which is worse, “he who kills evil motherfuckers, or he who protects them?” This classic debate doesn’t get a whole lot of attention in the following scene, but in some ways, asking it is just enough – and it does get Bryce to momentarily reconsider his motives. A similar thing happens to Kincaid when Bryce reframes his past killing of Kincaid’s apprentice as simply “protecting my client”.
Another interesting aspect is the unspoken (or, it is, but once, and briefly) moral comparison between Kincaid, Bryce, and the dictator Dukhovich. Bryce protects people, who pay him greatly to do so, in deliberate ignorance of whether his clients are good or bad people; Kincaid is paid for his work as well, but only takes a job if he agrees that the client was wronged and the mark deserves punishment. Dukhovich, in contrast to both of these men, is an egomaniac, unrepentant and cold-blooded, who has killed thousands if not millions in order to enforce control over the country he once ruled. Given that the original script was first written as a drama and not as a comedy, it seems possible that this facet was more thoroughly explored in its initial form; but the comedy was clearly spotlighted instead. The film is still not devoid of philosophy – though of course, it could certainly have done more.
But in spite of this, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a very satisfying film that I would highly recommend when you just need some good old fun. This work doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t; it was meant to be a crowd-pleaser, and like the two main characters, in the end, they do their job.
Recommended at full ticket price if: You enjoy witty action set pieces and are a fan of the billed cast.
Recommended buy on disc or streaming if: You don’t care about the casting, would only watch an action trope movie once
Pass if: You are a fan of more cerebral fare, or are bored of action movies at the moment.
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