Hello and welcome to the newly-christened “Ellements of Film.” (Thanks, R, for the name!) My enthusiasm and gumption has survived long enough to make this the second entry, which is one more entry than most of my earnest attempts at journaling. Today we’re going to talk about The Hitman’s Bodyguard, what I loved about it, and some of the things that could use some work. (Don’t get a Master’s degree in anything that involves critical analysis, kids. It means you don’t get to fully enjoy anything for the rest of your life.)
The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an example of what I call “what it says on tin” films. “What it says on the tin” films are those films that deliver pretty much exactly what you expect them to, based on the trailer and the title. “Oooh, Driving and Explosions 5 had a lot of driving and explosions in the trailer. I bet it’s gonna have driving and explosions in the film, too!” “What it says on the tin” films are nearly-perfectly-proportioned servings of entertainment. They’re usually not life-changing, half of the time they’re not even excellent. They’re just serviceable, fun films that fulfill all of your expectations. That doesn’t mean they don’t spread cultural messages (they do) or that we shouldn’t still apply critiques to it (we should) so thus I’m going to go through both the good and the bad. (Like last time, I’m going to do my best to avoid overt spoilers, but this is a movie review/critique, so read at your own risk.)
For those who aren’t familiar, The Hitman’s Bodyguard revolves around the trial of Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) the former president of Belarus (because the producers didn’t have quite enough guts to fuck with Russia) who is being tried at The Hague for human rights violations. For reasons that are unclear to me but boil down to “because plot,” all of the testimony of his victims (those who haven’t been mysteriously murdered) is dismissed as hearsay and he’s going to get away with literal murder unless someone can produce hard evidence against him. Conveniently, top assassin and badass motherfucker Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) has been recently arrested by Interpol, and is willing to make a deal for the freedom of his wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek) in exchange for his testimony against Dukhovich. Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung) calls on her ex, formerly elite bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to help get Kincaid to The Hague before charges are dropped against Dukhovich.
So first of all: this movie is just fun.
It’s really, really fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Samuel L. Jackson have more fun in a role. I think this movie started with him and then was built around him, because it is the perfect Samuel L. Jackson role. He gets to be badass, he gets to shoot people, he gets to be in cool car chases, he gets to be witty, he gets to sing, and he gets to say “motherfucker” about thirteen thousand times. (That’s my conservative estimate.) Ryan Reynolds plays somewhat against type as the straightman, but still gets some fun and charming moments. The female characters, as you probably expected, get fairly sidelined, but actually do get more screen time and fun moments than I expected. Even though Salma Hayek gets somewhat pigeonholed as “the angry Latina” for the millionth time (another conservative estimate) she also gets moments of badassdom. And Elodie Yung proved that she can be fun and cool when she’s not being forced into the Storyline of Elektra’s Angst and Pain on Daredevil and The Defenders. And Gary Oldman, basically playing Gary Oldman, was Gary Oldman. He’s goddamn Gary Oldman, you just enjoy him.
The setting is also really fun, and it’s fairly clear that half of the point of having this all go down in The Hague was so that there could be sweeping shots of London and chase scenes through the canals and narrow streets of Amsterdam. I give the movie full props for getting a vacation out of its shooting schedule.
Speaking of the chase scenes, they’re fairly awesome, and are honestly the best of the action scenes.
Definitely the highlight of the movie is just the dynamic between Jackson and Reynolds. I did not know that I needed a movie starring these two as antagonists/pals, but I really did. They’re just pretty awesome to watch as they play off one another, and Jackson’s facial expressions alone in this film prove why he’s so amazing.
I left the theater feeling like I’d gotten my money’s worth and glad I had gone to see it, which are the two highest things you can usually ask from a “what it says on the tin” film.
Now for the downsides.
The fight scenes really vary tonally from cheesy and choppy to somewhat impressive to “holy god why is there so much blood right now.” And they take the whole “no, a gas tank really explodes!” dial and turns it up to 11. I don’t know what their exploding car budget was for this film, but it was really, really high. So many cars explode in this movie.
Even though Sonia and Amelia get more screen time than I expected, it is still less than I hoped. I honestly would have just watched a pure half hour of Salma Hayek winning a barfight. And they both get sucked into “I did it all for love”-style subplots that are just kind of insulting. Oh, so the real lesson you learned from escorting an internationally-known hitman through Europe was that you miss your girlfriend? And the reason the hitman got arrested in the first place was because of his love for Sonia? Fab. Just fab. And the only other women with substantial lines in the film are the lead judge in the Hague, She Who Makes Arbitrary Rulings With No Explanation, and the head of Interpol, who mostly runs around shouting at people after things go badly and having no idea that there are moles in her office literally under her nose. So they don’t make a super positive impression.
While I really can’t imagine anyone besides Samuel L. Jackson playing his role because it is such a Samuel L. Jackson role, the character of Darius is another good candidate for my “What if the protagonist was female?” game. Now I specifically chose Jackson’s role, because I feel like we already have a plethora of “tight laced lady cop/partner/person has to learn something from her more free-wheeling partner/friend/fuckbuddy” films, and even more in TV. (Seriously, when did TV decide “pair a charismatic male something or other with a no-nonsense lady cop” was the only formula they could go with?) So I would honestly love to see a woman as the badass-yet-funny hitman (hitwoman? Is it like the actor/actress thing?) who is the only one in the world capable of bringing down an evil dictator.
As you might imagine from a film that uses buddy cop tropes and has a black male lead and a white male lead, there are also some potentially troubling racial characteristics. Michael Bryce starts out as the poster boy for white privilege, with a loving camera ode to his nice house, his nice watch, his nice espresso machine, his nice car, etc. The first time we see Darius Kincaid, he’s already in handcuffs, and the only loving camera ode we get is to the ravens tattooed on the back of his head. We also find out that they are from very different backgrounds—Bryce moved his way up through the CIA before going into bodyguard work, and Kincaid started taking contracts while he was still in his teens. We get a couple Pulp Fiction Jules-type moments where Kincaid somewhat challenges Bryce’s privilege and his view of the world when he asks Bryce who the real bad guy is—the assassin who kills bad people or the bodyguard who protects bad people. But then we immediately start talking about romance and saying motherfucker again, so we kinda lose the moment.
We also get a few undertones of the so-called “Magical Negro” trope. Darius is a seemingly immortal and superhuman figure, surviving quite a few things that by all rights should kill him and making impossible shots. Though Michael is ostensibly supposed to be helping Darius instead of the other way around, Darius gets fixated on Michael’s relationship with Amelia, and on helping said relationship recover. He definitely fits the bill for a black character “helping and enabling” a white character to reach contentment. And at the end of the film…
(SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS NO BUT SERIOUSLY SPOILERS)
…he docilely allows himself to be re-arrested, only to somehow magically escape prison, and then escape detection, later in the film. So like most Magical Negro figures, he enters Michael’s life just long enough to improve it before disappearing again.
But the one aspect of the film that annoyed me to start with and then really stuck in my craw was something they decided to do with the villain, Dukhovich. Fairly early in the film it is explained that Dukhovich has survived an attempt to kill him via dioxin poisoning, which has left him disfigured. Now, to be fair, he looks more like he’s had a really bad case of cystic acne, rather than what happened to probably the world’s most famous dioxin victim, Victor Yushchenko. But it does perpetuate a trope that really needs to freaking stop, that of the disfigured villain. Now, the disfigured villain trope is really, really old. Like, Phantom of the Opera old. Sometimes it is implied that the villain is a villain because of the disfigurement, like in Phantom. Sometimes the disfigurement is a result of the character’s continuing evil, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings or Voldemort in Harry Potter. Sometimes it is the act of becoming disfigured that turns someone into a villain, like Two-Face in Batman.
Sometimes the villain is just a villain and disfigured, like Blofeld in most iterations of the James Bond franchise. But we strongly associate disfigurement with evil, because we like visual shorthands for bad stuff. “He/she was so evil it fucked up their outsides!” is a lot easier of a visual moral for us to understand than “sometimes you’re evil and literally nothing happens to you and you get to stay pretty.” But this type of visual shorthand perpetuates stigmas about people with disabilities and disfigurements, and helps ensure that we continue to view people with visible disfigurements with disgust, pity, or horror. We didn’t need the dioxin storyline in this film. We already got that Belarus is a stand-in for Russia from all of the “Belarusian” accents, and the whole evil dictator thing. We already got that people would probably want him dead—again, evil dictator. We didn’t need the facial scars to know that Dukhovich was evil; we see him order the deaths of women and children in the first ten minutes of the film. We didn’t need to add to the already large catalog of disfigured villains in order to get across either of these points. Gary Oldman can pull off “creepy evil dictator” just fine without having to get the prosthetics department involved; again, he’s Gary goddamn Oldman.
And the wrap-up.
Overall, I honestly enjoyed The Hitman’s Bodyguard. It was fun, it was funny, and I really loved the actors. But just because it’s somewhat designed to be mindless entertainment doesn’t mean that it actually gets to be mindless, and doesn’t mean it gets a pass on using tropes that can cause social harm and that honestly are just fairly lazy writing. If you can find new and inventive implied meanings for the twelfth use of the word “motherfucker” in the same movie, you can also find ways to retire tropes like the Magical Negro or the disfigured villain.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not explaining the good, bad, and ugly about recent films to strangers on the internet, she studies gender in popular culture.
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