Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson are potentially a good team for a cartoonish action comedy, but the writing and execution here let them—and us—down. “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is absurd, which isn’t necessarily fatal in this genre, but it’s also witless, technically crude and, at two full hours, cruelly overlong—extremely busy but nonetheless quite boring.
The aim of screenwriter Tom O’Connor and director Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”) was clearly to resurrect the mismatched-buddy actioners of the 1980s, which Shane Black had pretty much codified in the first two “Lethal Weapon” movies. Black himself did a fine job of reviving that sort of goofy stuff in last year’s underappreciated “The Nice Guys.” This attempt, unfortunately, isn’t in the same league.
The set-up is pretty much defined by the on-the-nose title. Fussy Michael Bryce (Reynolds) was once a top-of-the-line security man but, as we see in a prologue, fell on bad times when an important client was killed, and two years later he’s a bottom-feeder handling low-lifes like his latest, a wacked-out drug dealer (Richard E. Grant). As we learn, he blames his downfall on his erstwhile girlfriend Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), an Interpol agent he believes was responsible for fouling up the operation that lost him “triple-A” status.
Amelia, meanwhile, is currently involved in a mission to deliver legendary hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) to the International Criminal Court (apparently relocated here from The Hague to Amsterdam, presumably for photogenic reasons) , where he’s scheduled to testify against Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), a Belarusian strongman president on trial for crimes against humanity. All the other witnesses against him have been assassinated—except for one pathetic guy, whose testimony is idiotically dismissed as “hearsay” though he actually saw Dukhovich shoot his wife and child—so Kincaid’s presence by the arbitrary deadline of 5pm the next day is essential if the monster is not to go scot free.
Kincaid has agreed to testify against Dukhovich in return for the freeing of his wife Sonia (Salma Hayek), a hot-tempered Latina who was used as bait to capture him. But though Interpol mounts an elaborate convoy to transport him through the streets of Manchester to the airport, a traitor within the law enforcement ranks—whom audiences will identify as a bad guy the moment he appears onscreen, though he’s not revealed as such for maybe five minutes—has arranged for Dukhovich’s private army to attack the group and kill Kincaid. But while they slaughter everybody else, Darius and Amelia escape, and she calls on Bryce to get Kincaid to the court on time.
What follows is a long journey in which Bryce and Kincaid, like the odd couple, alternately bicker and bond even as they fall into “hilarious” episodes, like a weird ride with a bus full of Italian nuns. Reportedly O’Connor’s script was originally written as a straight drama, and was hurriedly reworked into a comedy over the weeks preceding the shoot. Perhaps that’s why the purported humor feels recycled and flat, almost always ending with Jackson delivering his familiar horse laugh to encourage us to think that what we’ve just seen and heard has been funny. Periodically we get flashbacks—one showing why Kincaid became a murderer (though a principled one) and another how he met (and immediately fell for) the like-minded spitfire Sonia, while Bryce recalls his initial encounter with Amelia and continuing love for her (which is rekindled by one of Kincaid’s revelations)—as well as inserts of Sonia screaming and terrorizing a fat cellmate by making her stand in the corner, and others of Vukhovich handing out grim orders to his seemingly omnipotent underlings.
There are, of course, violent interruptions along the way—big action sequences that are marked by arbitrary explosions, surprisingly murky camerawork (Jules O’Loughlin was cinematographer) and jerky editing (by Jake Roberts), clumsy process shots (the back-screen effects are especially poor) and nasty spurts of violence that are intended to be darkly humorous but are mostly just gruesome. The worst example comes before what should be the movie’s culmination—Kincaid’s last-minute testimony—in a horrendously long chase sequence through Amsterdam’s streets, shops and canals. It includes, for no particular reason, an ugly torture scene as well as endless chases and fistfights. (It also features some spectacular motorcycle stunts in which Reynolds’ character conveniently wears a helmet that covers his face, obviously to cover the fact that it’s a stuntman doing all the heavy lifting.) But at least when it’s all over and Atli Orvarsson’s bombastic score (occasionally reinforced with pop tunes) finally lets up, one breathes a sigh of relief at the thought that the end is near.
No such luck. Piling climax on climax, the makers turn the trial into utter mayhem as Dukhovich tries to escape and Kincaid tracks him to the roof where a helicopter waits to whisk him away. Meanwhile Amelia confronts the traitor in her midst one-on-one while a wounded Bryce watches. The whole ridiculous coda adds a good ten minutes to a movie that’s already been brutally stretched out.
Reynolds has tried this sort of oddly-paired buddy shtick before (seriously with Denzel Washington in “Safe House” and comedically with Jeff Bridges in “R.I.P.D.”), and it hasn’t worked out well for him; this represents a definite third strike. Jackson isn’t asked to do much but his usual extravagant shtick, and he handles the assignment well enough, except for a few moments when he’s asked to affect a bug-eyed look that takes us back to the bad old days. Oldham, an old hand at playing villains, is unable to do much with this quasi-Russian dictator; certainly none of the subtlety of which he’s capable is required, and perhaps the beard was intended to reduce the embarrassment by camouflaging his identity somewhat. If so, it doesn’t work. Hayek throws herself into her part as a ranting stereotype, but gets to show off her physique to some effect, while Yung makes a rather bland heroine. Grant outdoes even Jackson in mania; thankfully he disappears quickly, since any longer exposure to him would be exhausting.
That would nevertheless be a good adjective to describe the entirety of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” which the casting of first-rank stars and an infusion of lame attempts at humor do little to lift above the level of every other overproduced cookie-cutter buddy-action movie. Maybe somebody thought this could be the start of a franchise; if so, think again.