Los Angeles (AP) – There’s not a whole lot that’s new about “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” Its mismatched-pals premise is the stuff of classic buddy comedies. Stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson play their typical character types: Reynolds the handsome do-gooder; Jackson the unflappable badass whose favorite word is an expletive. And like many movie heroes past, they’re tasked with taking down a brutal dictator.
Yet that kind of familiar framework is what makes this action-packed mashup of gun battles, car chases, fist fights and international intrigue such a delight: Leave reality’s chaos at the door, and lose yourself in a world where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and Sam Jackson spontaneously breaks into song. (He actually sings three times in this film — once in Italian! With nuns! Plus his own, original F-word-laden tune.)
And did I mention there’s a love-story subplot?
Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a well-manicured, tightly wound, type-A personality who works in “executive protection,” providing high-end, high-stakes bodyguard services for society’s unsavories. His career and polished image take a nosedive after a weapons dealer he was protecting is killed by a sniper. Bryce blames his Interpol detective ex-girlfriend, Amelia (Elodie Yung), for the deadly mistake, believing she leaked information to her law-enforcement colleagues.
A couple years later, Amelia is tapped to transport notorious hit-man Darius Kincaid (Jackson) to the International Criminal Court, where he’s to be the sole witness testifying against murderous Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, always perfect). Dukhovich deploys his bottomless army of goons to take out their convoy and ultimately eliminate Kincaid, who promised his testimony in exchange for the release of his wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek), from jail.
Outgunned and desperate, Amelia turns to Bryce for help, promising to help restore his career if he can get Kincaid to The Hague safely. Thus begins the odd-couple pairing of Reynolds and Jackson and premise for various physical and verbal throw-downs, with the bad guys and each other.
When Bryce says he’s there to keep Kincaid out of harm’s way, Kincaid replies, “I am harm’s way.”
And he proves it, taking out baddies even while handcuffed and outracing a fleet of armored cars while whipping a speedboat through Amsterdam’s canals. Jackson soars in roles like these, and his performance is as bulletproof as Kincaid is rumored to be. The 68-year-old is as thrilling an action star as any decades younger. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn he does his own stunts, and insisted on manning that speedboat himself.
Jackson’s Kincaid is also the story’s wise elder, giving Bryce romance advice as they dodge Dukhovich’s thugs.
Reynolds works his comic and superhero action chops and Hayek is at her fieriest as a barmaid unafraid to cut a guy’s carotid with a broken bottle.
Director Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”) keeps the action grounded in the story’s narrative without compromising the excitement. The movie is loud, with several explosions that could shake a nervous viewer from his or her seat, but the chases are epic, especially the speedboat scene, during which Reynolds’ character kept pace on a motorcycle.
Screenwriter Tom O’Connor mitigates the serious matter in his story — the trial of a tyrant for war crimes against his own people — with brisk banter and thrilling fight sequences, along with a touch of sweetness as it becomes clear that both Bryce and Kincaid are motivated by love.
If only movies could make that universal.
“The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong violence and language throughout.” Running time: 118 minutes. Three stars out of four.