The Box Office:
The Hitman’s Bodyguard opens in North American theaters a week from tonight, operating as a sort of season finale to the 2017 summer movie season. The picture comes from Millennium Films and Crystal Pictures, and it will be distributed domestically courtesy of Lionsgate. The $30 million, R-rated action comedy is both a throwback and a sign of the times.
On the one hand, the Ryan Reynolds/Samuel L. Jackson caper is a prototypical “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore!” offering, the kind of movie that would have been a solid B-movie sleeper in a prior generation but now is at least somewhat banking on luck to break through. On the other hand, it is also the sort of $20-$60 million grindhouse action movie that Millennium tends to offer hoping that it can score a few bucks here and score over/under $50m in China.
Mechanic: Resurrection barely broke $21 million domestic but made $125m worldwide on a $40m budget last summer including $49m in China. London Has Fallen made $205m worldwide thanks partially to $52m in China. And if we do end up with an Expendables 4 or a new Rambo movie, it won’t be because anyone thinks North America or Europe has any interest.
And that’s okay if everyone knows the score. And maybe, just maybe, the notion of seeing Samuel L. Jackson in a straight up leading man action movie role, something he hasn’t done in many years (Snakes on a Plane in 2006) will be enough to make it a quasi-event. But that’s for another day.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a classic star+concept studio programmer, one that works thanks to strong chemistry and just enough clever action to justify itself. The Patrick Hughes film offers the kind of conventional shoot-outs, chases and fights that have become less prevalent in the fantasy action era. Said sequences are constructed with style and wit that acknowledges their B-movie roots while also providing more scale and impact than a now-standard direct-to-DVD action picture. All of it is firmly rooted in two quirky movie stars playing to their strengths, in a laid-back mix of ultra-violence and almost gentle vulgarity.
Directed by Patrick Hughes and written by Tom O’Connor, The Hitman’s Bodyguard involves a disgraced former A-level bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) who lost his prestige when one of his rich/powerful clients got popped on his watch. He still plies his trade, and he’s still good at what he does, to the point where a former flame/Interpol agent (Élodie Yung) turns to him when a prisoner transport she is assisting gets attacked. The prisoner in question is a world-famous assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) who has agreed to testify against a genocidal dictator (Gary Oldman) in the International Court of Justice.
It’s a pretty solid gimmick, with a bodyguard tasked with protecting a hitman. This is all a clothesline on which to hang violent action sequences and extended moments of Reynolds and Jackson getting on each other’s nerves. Reynolds is the reactionary comic force this time around, the straight man if you will to Jackson’s scenery-chewing antics. It has been ages since Jackson had a show-boaty lead role like this from a major studio release (Lakeview Terrace in 2008), and it’s clear he’s relishing what is almost certainly dwindling opportunity (“black don’t crack” notwithstanding, Mr. Jackson is 68-years old).
Salma Hayek cameos imprisoned wife and Oldman arguably phones in what is now his standard over-the-top mugging. I wish Yung had more to do once the plot kicked into gear, but this is the Reynolds/Jackson show. And, again, Reynolds is surprisingly restrained here, playing a comparatively low-key professional, one who is understandably frustrated at the position in which he finds himself, but not an excessively comic character. Jackson and Reynolds share the comic stage and, since Reynold’s character often goes out of his way not to kill people (a nice touch), it is Jackson who eventually becomes the film’s primary action figure.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard has an unassuming charm that works despite its lackadaisical structure. The 118-minute film has essentially two full endings. Its mix of crowd-pleasing violence with a plot involving racially-motivated genocide may seem ill-fitting. But it harkens back to the 1980’s and 1990’s action movies that could offer light commentary on Apartheid or a history lesson on post-World War II moral outrages. Hughes (Red Hill, Expendables 3) again proves himself a reliable and sturdy action filmmaker, offering fun sequences that vary in content and escalate in scale. It’s nice that he didn’t have to chop it down to a PG-13 this time.
This is the very definition of an old-school action movie. The focus is on (often bawdy and profane) character interaction and practical stunts. The character arcs are relatively low-key and unforced. It’s not a new action classic, but it’s a darn good time at the movies. Reynolds is good, Jackson is happy to be back and there is more than enough character on display to compensate for the by-the-numbers plotting. Oh, and it is also at least the third movie featuring Joaquin de Almedia where our heroes get Clear and Present Danger-ed. Maybe they should take a train next time.
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