At once reassuringly familiar – even starchy – and yet oddly unsatisfying, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is meat-and-potatoes moviemaking at its most fungible. Co-starring Ryan Reynolds as Michael Bryce, a disgraced security expert seeking redemption, and Samuel L. Jackson as his nemesis-turned-client Darius Kincaid – a murderer-for-hire Michael must reluctantly protect while Darius prepares to testify against a Belarusian dictator accused of war crimes (Gary Oldman) – the comic action/buddy flick serves up an undistinguished bill of fare.
For plot, there’s a bloody yet hard-to-swallow cut of subprime red meat: “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is gratuitously violent and preposterous. For acting, there’s not one but two cheese-stuffed baked potatoes on the plate, with Jackson and Reynolds vying for the audience’s attention. In place of fresh, crisp dialogue, there’s a wilted word salad of vulgar repartee, the most common utterance of which – this being a Samuel L. Jackson film – is unprintable.
At other times, Darius’ put-downs are simply head-scratching: “I’ve eaten hamburgers that know more about women than you,” he tells Michael, during one of several man-to-man talks about woman troubles that they manage to squeeze in between escapades eluding assassins on the way to The Hague’s International Criminal Court.
To be sure, there is always a certain pleasure in watching Jackson do his thing: Glare, grin and then unload with a mouthful of invective, followed by a can of whup-ass. The same does not apply to Salma Hayek, who plays Darius’ foul-mouthed convict wife, Sonia. Promised release from prison if Darius agrees to help put Oldman’s Vladislav Dukhovich behind bars, Sonia has little to do except curse loudly and in Spanish (yet not especially colorfully, according to the subtitles). Darius says he loves her, just as Michael says he loves Amelia (Elodie Yung), an Interpol officer with whom he shares a complicated backstory. Yet this is no rom-com. “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is all bromance.
The extent to which you will enjoy it depends less on the sloppily calibrated balance of comedy to bloodshed – only occasionally in equilibrium, in an absurdist way, and never sublimely so – than on the delicate chemistry of Reynolds’ cucumber-cool persona and Jackson’s embodiment of the impulsive id. Directed by Patrick Hughes (“The Expendibles 3”) from a script by Tom O’Connor (“Fire With Fire”), “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” seems reverse-engineered to ape every middlebrow late-’80s-to-mid-’90s testosterone-fest, from “Lethal Weapon” to “Bad Boys.”
As Michael and Darius make their way to the Netherlands, it’s easy to forget exactly what is at stake for each of them – hint: it ain’t justice – what with all the long and ludicrous chase sequences, episodes of forced separation followed by implausible reunions and, seemingly, one 11th-hour appearance by a deus ex machina after another. Only one fight scene – between Michael and Dukhovich’s henchman Ivan (Yuri Kolokolnikov), who move from restaurant kitchen to hardware store, availing themselves of a hot grill and a nail gun for weapons – approaches the inspired level of a live-action comic book like, say, “John Wick.”
Despite all the mayhem, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is a surprisingly bland dish. Some folks like to take a nap after a big meal. If it weren’t for all the fireballs and f-bombs, you might even be able to get some shut-eye while you’re watching “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”