If you don’t especially like car crashes, exploding buildings and the overuse of assault weapons, you may want to stay away from the cinema for a while. Well, you could have started to stay away even before the pandemic, because it often seemed there was nothing else to see, whether the noise and violence involved superheroes or just special agents in suits. But let’s be fair. It was the trailers that showed all this stuff, and sometimes the film was different. You just had arrive at the cinema a little late.
And if you happened to like this metallic and paramilitary mayhem, and better still if you thought there could be a chance of comedy in it, you might actually welcome a movie like The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017) and its newly released sequel The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard – even if you do perhaps nurse the hope that the string of possessives won’t go on extending for ever.
Both films are written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Patrick Hughes. And both star Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, though in the second case the verb is far too feeble. I’m not sure any other actor could play a murderous villain and get so many laughs. When I saw the first of the two movies I thought I was watching a bit of the James Bond franchise mangled by Quentin Tarantino. But the memory of Jackson in Pulp Fiction was leading me astray. His performance in Kingsman is closer to us in time, and the disorderly presiding spirit is more like that of Mel Brooks. What else could turn tales of Interpol and contemporary dictators into something like ‘Springtime for Putin’?
We learn that Jackson, as Darius Kincaid, now a celebrated assassin, started his career as an amateur, killing his father’s murderer. He was young at the time, and knew that his father, a church pastor, would have reminded him that vengeance was best left to the Lord. He also knew that, as he says, he didn’t want to wait that long. In the film he seems more a curser than a killer. Reynolds, as Jackson’s supposed protector, the bodyguard Michael Bryce, says he has ‘single-handedly ruined the word motherfucker’. I don’t know about the ruin, but he certainly uses the word a lot.
We may have thought there was going to be a bit of metaplay in the film when we learned that the Japanese plutocrat murdered in the opening scene was called Kurosawa, but the mode doesn’t fully declare itself until Reynolds explains to Jackson that his job as a bodyguard is to keep the imperilled hitman out of harm’s way. Jackson’s grin seems to take over the whole screen. ‘Shit, motherfucker,’ he says. ‘I am harm’s way.’
So how come he needs so much protection, providing the excuse for flames and deaths in Manchester and a ludicrous car and boat chase through Amsterdam? He’s a romantic at heart. He is going to testify at The Hague against his former employer, the president of Belarus, played by Gary Oldman with all the evil relish we would expect of him, in return for which testimony Jackson’s wife, Salma Hayek, will be released from jail. Needless to say, Oldman has inside help trying to stop the testimony from being heard.
And yes, it was love at first sight, or at first slash, and Jackson tells Reynolds all about it. She ‘chopped off part of my ear with a machete one time.’ He murmurs the words ‘violence’ and ‘beauty’. Cut to a bar at night with Lionel Richie on the soundtrack singing ‘Hello’. Three men are giving Hayek a hard time, but she is dealing with them, knocking two out and killing the third. The song continues and Jackson says in a voiceover: ‘When she severed that dude’s carotid artery with a beer bottle, then I knew …’ True romance.
In the new film, Hayek is still free, but Jackson, having escaped between films, has been kidnapped by the mafia. This is not where the movie starts, though. Mr Kurosawa returns in memory, and Reynolds has a dream that makes any ordinary idea of wish fulfilment look like a low-budget production. He is attending a ceremony in London at which the award for Bodyguard of the Year is presented. If there’s an event that looks more like an evening at the Oscars I don’t know what it is. As a member of the audience, Reynolds is startled to hear his name. He is appropriately modest in his acceptance speech, and then he wakes up.
Plotline isn’t a strong point in these films, but we shall perhaps remember that he lost his bodyguard’s licence by allowing Mr Kurosawa to be killed, and he is desperately trying to get it back. In the next scene we see him in analysis with Rebecca Front, who has made many films but is most familiar to some of us as the police superintendent in 36 episodes of Lewis. She asks him how often he has had this dream. He says once … a night. How does it make him feel? He says ‘satisfied’ and Lionel Richie returns in the soundtrack. Front can’t wait to get rid of her patient, and recommends that Reynolds take a holiday, think of the different self he will be one day, and give up guns and bodyguarding. He’s willing to try, and it’s always amusing when a character in film or fiction shows such extraordinary ignorance of the kind of story he or she lives in. He’s scarcely had time to spread out his towel near a swimming pool in Capri before Hayek shows up demanding his help in freeing Jackson from the mob. This was Jackson’s special request, she says, although we learn later that she slightly misunderstood the plea. Jackson had asked her to get anyone but Reynolds.
The combination of errors, dangers and violence continues, and a lot of it is very funny. The sense that the film can’t escape allusions to film is strong – Bruce Willis is mentioned, as is Sean Connery, and the movie Overboard (1987). We are supposed to be surprised (and we are) when Morgan Freeman shows up not only as the gold standard of bodyguards, but as Reynolds’s father. But then Antonio Banderas is disappointing as the villain in chief, the Greek gangster who wants to make the EU pay for its treatment of his country’s economy. He doesn’t manage to be anything but suave, and there have been too many versions of that form of nastiness already. And this time the film underuses Jackson, though Hayek does a wonderful job of turning Latin glamour into screwball mayhem. In the end, it begins to feel as if this is Die Hard gone soft rather than Blazing Saddles gone European.
Still, you keep laughing, or at least I did. Gary Oldman shows up from the earlier film in order to get killed in a nightclub, a death provoked by the appearance of Richard E. Grant as a dope-driven former client of Reynolds. Reynolds was supposed to be undercover, of course, but the very idea is a non-starter in a film like this, except as a device to make sure everything gets messed up. In any case, Belarus is doing much better than Greece so far.
And then there is Frank Grillo as an Interpol agent working on the Banderas case – oh yes, there is a plan to contaminate databanks all over the place, through a device that looks remarkably like a screwdriver. Grillo is the perfect parody of the Italian American tough guy, even if his name in the film is O’Neill, and he offers a useful reminder of the comic value of excess: too much is just right as long you know what genre you’re supposed to be in.