Here’s what Patrick Hughes’s The Hitman’s Bodyguard has going for it: It’s exactly the movie it promises to be, but more so. It’s wilder, more hilarious, more giddily irresponsible — it’s the hard R action comedy that kids sneaking into it might imagine it’s going to be, minus Seventies- and Eighties-style nudity. At any moment, another chase or gunfight or burst of ludicrous violence might break out, in the streets of London or the canals of Amsterdam, all peppered with the inventive swearing of Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds and, in an extended cameo, a spectacularly filthy-mouthed Salma Hayek. One of those vicious close-quarters brawls that destroys a restaurant kitchen (chucked cast-iron skillets, faces seared on the grill) gets immediately followed by an even madder one wrecking a hardware store (axes, nail guns). Romantic flashbacks to a Mexico City dive play, intentionally, like the scene in Airplane! where Robert Hays’s character meets Julie Hagerty’s — as they lose themselves in each other’s eyes, bar brawls rage like the dancing flakes in a snow globe.
It’s all relentless in that never-stop never-stopping way, where the first big battle could have been the climax of a movie fifteen years ago. At times, the continual cut-cut/shoot-shoot — verbs that apply to both the filmmaking and the on-screen killing — shakes entirely free from the concerns of storytelling. We’re forever caught in sequences rather than a narrative, and when each extended set piece finally ends, some character gets tasked with reminding us that, oh yes, there’s a plot going on that we’re meant to recall and care about. Imagine if the old Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen musicals tossed out all those shortish story-tied song numbers and instead did those grand finale splendorous ballets every eight minutes. And also that those ballets each left behind dozens of corpses that nobody ever even blinks at, and that often one shot cuts to another so quickly that you catch only the sense of motion rather than the specifics of it. (The one-on-one kitchen/hardware store fights featuring Reynolds are composed of clearer, longer takes, and occasionally the vehicular mayhem offers images of startling clarity: a motorcycle chasing SUVs chasing a boat, all in the same shot.)
Any honest review of this film will flirt with tautology: If you like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like. If you’ve ever left an action film wondering, “How many killings can a mind regard in two hours before something human within it collapses?” well, you may still find some amusement here when you’re not feeling numbed. It helps immeasurably that it’s Jackson and Reynolds doing the shooting/driving/running/buddy-comedy bickering. The plot concerns Jackson’s character, the hit man of the title, being called upon to testify at the Hague in the trial of a war criminal (Gary Oldman). Due to the logic of screenplays, he has to get there from London in something like 27 hours or the war criminal walks free. (The International Criminal Court doesn’t know about Skype?)
Of course, paramilitary squads have assembled to prevent this testimony, and Reynolds’s character — a primly fastidious high-end bodyguard — gets roped into making sure the hit man makes his appointment. The two men detest each other, of course, and in the brief respites from the violence bicker, philosophize, and — in my favorite moment — sing songs chosen to annoy each other. Somehow, as the bullets fly, Jackson’s character teaches Reynolds lessons about the nature of love; one of the film’s true pleasures is watching Jackson as a jolly murderer rather than a grim one. The script, by Tom O’Connor, never quite makes these killers into convincing people as Shane Black might have, and director Hughes’s excesses (fat jokes, fart jokes, cartoon sound effects) occasionally head-shots the goodwill that the stars generate. But both actors talk fast and funny, each scoring lots of on-brand laughs, with Reynolds in his polite, profane motormouth mode (disappointed at a car wash, he asks a worker, “Are you washing the car with old assholes?”).
Crucially, the filmmakers honor the solemn responsibility that comes with casting Jackson in an R-rated goof of a film: the crafting of memorably daft badassery for him to thunder. Here are lines I’m thankful I’ve lived long enough to hear him say: “It’s mighty motherfucking white of you.” “Don’t even think about answering that fucking phone!” “I am harm’s way.” “There’s a plethora of motherfuckers!”
The Hitman’s Bodyguard
Directed by Patrick Hughes
Opens August 18