Released four years ago to a collective “Sure, I’d watch that, I guess” shrug of audience rubber stamping, The Hitman’s Bodyguard dared to wonder what Midnight Run would look like if it had no moral center to speak of, plus mugging movie stars in place of any actual characters. Yet that glib, derivative buddy comedy is a model of sparkling Hollywood entertainment compared to its sequel. If the inelegantly titled Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard had an iota of wit, it might function as a Gremlins 2 parody of its predecessor, so blithely does it jettison the already nominal sense that anything happening on screen is of any consequence. Instead, the heightened cartoon zaniness of this new installment feels like a joke at the expense of the viewer: The impression is of a creative team laughing that they’re getting away with this again, like a group of bank robbers howling as they round the block in their getaway car, then circling back to nonchalantly knock off the same place again.
If the original had anything going for it, it was the halfway-agreeable chemistry between its eponymous mismatched partners, perennially put-upon bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) and cucumber-cool international assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson). Neither Reynolds nor Jackson were exactly stretching themselves, but the movie at least understood the appeal of its calculus—the potential comic dividends of bouncing Reynolds’ sarcastic exasperation off of Jackson’s swaggering irreverence. You got what you paid for with that pairing, even if the movie around it was simultaneously forgettable and rather unpleasantly callous in its mayhem.
Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (again, what a title) wastes little time reuniting its stars. But the spark between them has fizzled. Jackson, for his part, coasts harder on just being Sam Jackson, ageless icon of cool, than he ever has before, which is really saying something. He slouches back into his role with an unmistakable indifference, fuzzying any qualities that distinguished this cackling swinging-dick from a dozen others on his resume. By the umpteenth bored, perfunctory “motherfucker,” you realize you’re witnessing the kind of checked-out check-cashing that his Jackie Brown costar Robert De Niro has been doing, on and blessedly off, for the last couple decades. Reynolds, by contrast, goes bigger, admittedly in accordance with a script that cranks the finicky neurosis of his character to a deeply annoying 11. On orders from his therapist, Bryce has sworn off violence (“I’m on sabbatical,” he keeps bellowing, which gets less funny every time he says it), and the movie treats his prissy pacifism like a license for slapstick abuse, shot-gunning stunt doubles into walls and sending rubbery digital avatars of Bryce through windshields.
As the title suggests, Kincaid’s foul-mouthed spouse, played by a perpetually cooing or screaming Salma Hayek, has been promoted to co-lead, her Sonia newly identified as an “international con-woman.” Let’s just say that the little of that character’s nonstop, high-volume invective we got in the first movie went a long way. Most of the film unfolds like a shrill third-wheel sitcom, as Reynolds’ vacationing Bryce is entrapped into accompanying the unhinged couple on an oddly leisurely mission across scenic, must-have-been-a-pleasant-shoot Italy. Their target: a powerful, stylish, right wing Greek billionaire played, with an apropos lack of spirit, by Antonio Banderas. (What passes for clever in this movie is putting the stars of Desperado back in the frame together, and then giving them nothing fun to say or do.) Why would Interpol—taking the form this time of DTV action mainstay Frank Grillo, who barely gets to even point a gun at anyone—trust the fate of Europe to two sociopaths and a reformed “executive protection” expert? Save such questions for a movie that can even be bothered to pretend to care about the specifics of its slapdash plot.
The humor goes Austin Powers broad. Even by action-comedy standards, the villain’s plan is pure nonsense: It involves a deep-sea drill, a computer virus, and the notion that all of Europe’s data is stored in a single, highly protected hub. A discount ZAZ sensibility creeps into even the perfunctory globe-trotting table-setting, as when Bryce’s question about a potential vacation destination gets a swift callback with the location identifier “Capri [like the pants] Italy.” The film keeps goofing on the gags of the original, which again might be funny if, well, the goofs were funny; the self-reflexive streak of the screenplay amounts to cranking the absurdist tragedy of the backstory-dispensing flashbacks, beating Bryce’s obsession with his lost body-guarding license into the dirt, and repeating a tired Lionel Richie needle drop joke, only this time punctuated by the music farting out, record-scratch style. As in the first film, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard wants it both ways, giving us antiheroes that see ruthless homicide as nothing but a laughing matter, while also expecting us to give two shits about their fertility woes. It’s cuddly nihilism, all hugs and headshots.
Through this labored wackiness, the movie often neglects the action side of its equation. Which might be for the best: Returning director Patrick Hughes forgoes the fashionable John Wick moves he poorly approximated on his first try in favor of more generic, infrequent bursts of gunplay and chases that fail, rather spectacularly, to create any convincing continuity between the actors bouncing around in close-up in the front seat of a vehicle and the cars exploding into lousy CGI fire in accompanying wide takes. What the set pieces have in common with everything else in this dunderheaded, insultingly mechanical franchise hopeful is the overwhelming feeling that everyone involved said “good enough” at every turn. It’s savvy only in the way it lowers the standards for this kind of thing, assuring that any future sequels that give half an ass instead of barely a quarter of one will prompt more enthusiasm, or at least relief.