When progressive or experimental films make unexpected breakthroughs in how to tell stories on screen, they are rightfully praised. Sometimes, however, it worth stepping back and also acknowledging quality mainstream work: films that do not reinvent or transform anything, but simply do a well-worn, familiar thing very well. As film critics and reviewers, we often overlook run-of-the-mill populist cinema and I think that’s a mistake. A cast in point is The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), which is to a large extent as formulaic and ‘safe’ as they come – but which does what it aims to do with efficiency, strong technique, and charm.
Disgraced bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) gets one chance at restoring his professional reputation when the captured professional killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) agrees to testify against a European dictator in the Hague. Getting from London to the Netherlands, however, proves more difficult than expected as the dictator’s agents attempt to kill them before they arrive.
Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of the cast (Salma Hayek and Gary Oldman also feature), or maybe it’s because I waited until 2020 to catch up on this one and it’s been a year badly in need of some laughs, but The Hitman’s Bodyguard really impressed me. It is an action-comedy in which both the action and comedy elements are firing on all cylinders, and in which its distinctive cast are given roles and a screenplay that maximise their potential and play to their strengths. It does not deliver anything new to the genre, and by-and-large passed through cinemas profitably but quietly, but it deserves praise for being the best version of itself that it can possibly be. Comedy is a subjective thing, but I laughed more through this than I think I did in any other film this year.
Samuel L. Jackson’s appeal here is, in all respect to his talent, a given. He plays Darius Kincaid, a foul-mouthed and flamboyant assassin specifically tailored to his strengths. We have seen this ‘bad-ass motherfucker’ schtick from Jackson so many times that it’s effectively become its own one-man stereotype, but it is a stereotype no one else can quite match. It still appeals to an audience that knows the jokes already, sees them approaching, and still laughs. The same can mostly be said of Ryan Reynold’s performance as Bryce: the familiar dead-pan delivery, an overly talkative personality, and a dogged acceptance of the absurd.
It is Salma Hayek that impresses the most here. Hollywood has been underrating and under-utilising her talent for decades now, and it enormously welcome to see her given such a strong comedic role. She plays Kincaid’s imprisoned wife with a wonderful blend of humour, romance, and full-blown super-villain terror. While she is still restricted to a supporting part, she does benefit from most of the screenplay’s best lines.
The action sequences are genuinely well-developed and executed, and contain a surprising level of shock violence compared to a typical action-comedy. This does give the film something of an edge over similar works, since the outrageous levels of over-the-top carnage provide their own share of comedy. Director Patrick Hughes has previously demonstrated his action credentials on Red Hill (2010) and The Expendables 3 (2014), but The Hitman’s Bodyguard shows an good improvement in style and technique.
Some times it is really worth appreciating a film that doesn’t innovate and is entirely indifferent to making a long-term impact on its audience. Some films simply exist to give their audience a good time – The Hitman’s Bodyguard gives its audience a great time.