This won’t be news for anyone who’s seen a movie — any movie — in the last 30 years, but Samuel L. Jackson sure loves to say “motherfucker.” For most of us, it’s just a swear word, but for him it’s an instrument. For the length of those four syllables, he’s less of an actor than he is a bonafide artisan. Yo-Yo Ma has a cello, Wayne Gretzky has a hockey stick, and Samuel L. Jackson has an expletive. What does it mean? Well, it can mean everything and nothing; it can be a threat, a term of endearment, or whatever else the moment calls for. For Samuel L. Jackson, it’s usually just a cold-blooded thing to say before he pops a cap in someone’s ass.
Musician Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent, recently gave an interview in which she proffered that “‘Motherfucker’ says, like, I know you inside and out. And you know me. Don’t pretend.” There’s something very true about that. When Samuel L. Jackson utters “motherfucker,” he’s like a Pokémon announcing its own name. He’s saying “you know who I am, and you’re here to see me do my thing.”
In “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a half-assed action-comedy that lacks the courage to commit to its own premise, Jackson says “motherfucker” 934 times (that’s not an exact count, but it feels right). At first, it just sounds like the role of Darius Kincaid — an assassin so un-killable that even his own wife refers to him as “the cockroach” — was written or re-written with Jackson in mind. Over time, however, it starts to seem more likely that the role was so underwritten the actor had no choice but to fill in the blanks with his signature epithet. And the more we learn about Kincaid’s backstory, the more we realize that “motherfucker” isn’t being used to add character so much as it’s being used as a substitute for one. In “Pulp Fiction,” the word was a means to an end. In “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” it’s an end unto itself. All it really means is “Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie.” A movie that spends two hours reiterating a simple fact that its poster conveys in two seconds.
An original summer movie that lazily forces all of its most famous actors to embody the most basic versions of their brands, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” has the freedom to invent a fun new world, but it plays things safer than any of the franchise films that it’s following into multiplexes. Ryan Reynolds stars as Michael Bryce, a Ryan Reynolds type who happens to be the best protection agent in all of London. He’s sexy, he’s sarcastic, and he delivers every line like he’s trying to ignore a sharp pain in his groin. All told, it’s hard to accept that Bryce believes in his safety-conscious business motto: “Boring is always best.” Likewise, it’s hard to understand how Bryce’s life changes all that much after one of his clients — a Japanese arms dealer named Kurosawa — is assassinated right in front of him, but the story assures us that it does. Pro tip: Don’t invoke Kurosawa’s name during the first five minutes of your disposable popcorn flick.
The brunt of the action takes place two years later, when Kincaid agrees to travel to the Hague from his Manchester prison cell and testify against the genocidal former President of Belarus, Vladislav Dukhovich (obviously Gary Oldman). In exchange, Kincaid’s wife (a self-parodic Salma Hayek) will be released from a Dutch jail. Kincaid’s escort is immediately ambushed by Dukhovich’s men, and Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung) asks her ex-boyfriend Bryce to take the prisoner the rest of the way. But — here comes the twist — Bryce and Kincaid have unresolved beef with each other. You thought these guys were gonna get along? Well, guess what, they’re not going to get along at all, motherfucker!
And so begins a hyper-violent adventure in which our mismatched heroes try to survive evil henchmen and each other, leaving a trail of corpses that stretches from the U.K. to the Netherlands. For a modestly budgeted wank that was always going to feel like something of a ’90s throwback, nothing seems more old-fashioned than the movie’s eagerness to wreak such empty havoc across some of Europe’s most beautiful cities. If only we could still smirk along with Bryce as he detonates a bomb inside a Manchester townhouse, or share in Kincaid’s anarchic glee as he incites carnage along the streets of Amsterdam — it’s not the movie’s fault, but in 2017 you have to earn that kind of imagery.
“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” doesn’t earn a damn thing. The relationship between the lead characters is woefully underdeveloped, their relationships with the women in their lives are even weaker (Hayek’s character should either have been given twice as much to do or cut out completely), and Dukhovich is so irrelevant that he never even learns that Bryce exists. This feels like the kind of movie that was radically re-conceived right before it started production, and that’s because it was; at the last minute, the powers that be decided that it would be easier for Tom O’Connor’s script to accommodate the actors than it would be for the actors to accommodate Tom O’Connor’s script (or “act,” as it’s called in the industry).
Of course, this happens all the time in Hollywood. It used to work, too, back when we still had stars. Unsurprisingly, veterans like Jackson and Oldman fare better than their younger costars when left to their own devices with such limp material, but everyone is hung out to dry. There’s no use trying to assign blame. As Kincaid rhetorically asks Bryce: “Who is more wicked, he who kills evil motherfuckers, or he who protects them?”
Director Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”) also boarded this ill-fated ship just as it was about to shove off to sea, but he deserves credit for trying to steer things to safety. The movie achieves a genuine sense of momentum as it bulldozes its westward path, and the second half strings together a few resourceful action sequences that boast a destructive pizazz on par with “Atomic Blonde,” even if they’re a bit short on style. A chase scene along the Amsterdam canals is a blast even before someone busts out a rocket launcher, and the hand-to-hand fighting only gets gnarlier as it goes along. Nearly every stunt is kissed with the ineffable fakeness of cheap CG, but that’s not too much of a buzzkill in a film that wants to feel even more cartoonish than it does.
There’s something fun buried under all this nonsense, as “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is consistently at its best when it hints at a colorful “John Wick”-like underworld where love is forged with violence and jail is just a place to relax between movies. But this late summer whiff is way too timid to actually do any digging — it doesn’t even get its hands dirty. Instead it just has Samuel L. Jackson swear a lot, it has Ryan Reynolds make the Ryan Reynolds face, and it wastes a perfectly good opportunity to remind us that boring isn’t always best. It wants to become a franchise too badly to risk anything as a film, so it settles for basic cable filler with an HBO vocabulary.
“Motherfucker” can mean a lot of things. In this context, it means that you should probably see something else.
“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” opens in theaters on August 18.