You know a movie is in trouble when it uncrates a busload of nuns. Religious sisters dressed in their distinctive habits and wimples may have largely disappeared from the real world but the movies keep trotting them out as the occasion for sight gags or jokes at the expense of their chastity. "Which lap should I sit on?" quips Samuel L. Jackson as his character in The Hitman's Bodyguard climbs into a minivan of Italian nuns singing their way across England.
The odd thing about this clichéd encounter is that Hitman's buddy-comedy action flick is chugging along quite nicely at this point with the sly Jackson playing a gleefully murderous hit man forced to accept Ryan Reynolds's amusingly prissy bodyguard – or "triple-A-rated executive protection agent" – as his security detail.
The Hitman's Bodyguard is not lacking good jokes; it also has strong action sequences courtesy of director Patrick Hughes and a nicely twisting plot from screenwriter Tom O'Connor. But both of these men have pretty short résumés to be trusted with large quantities of explosives and what is missing from their movie is a coherent attitude towards the gloriously gratuitous violence that they unleash on their audience.
In a complicated set-up, we learn that an evil Belarusian dictator (the reliably inscrutable Gary Oldman adding Slavic to his repertoire) is about to be tried for war crimes. So his thugs are doing all they can to stop hired assassin and key witness Darius Kincaid (Jackson) from testifying against him at the International Court of Justice.
Desperate to get Darius from custody in Britain to The Hague, but realizing there's a mole inside Interpol, agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung) reluctantly seeks out her ex-boyfriend, disgraced executive bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds). Little does she know that the hit man and the bodyguard have a long and bitter history: "Twenty-seven times, that's how many times this asshole has tried to kill me," Bryce says, before correcting himself with an exasperated "28."
So this warring pair inevitably wind up together fighting off Belarusians and nuns as they rush to The Hague to meet some artificial court deadline, while vehicles blow up and bodies pile up. Kincaid has, by Bryce's estimation, killed more than 150 people; Kincaid figures it's "250, easy." It's all funny and includes a great motorcycle and boat chase down the canals of Amsterdam; Hughes can be applauded for his control of the action sequences even if he follows this climax simply by repeating the trick, this time with cars racing down the highways leading to The Hague.
And yet, there is also the film's nadir, a maudlin flashback in which Kincaid explains how he committed his first killing to take revenge on a thief who had robbed a church and murdered the pastor. So, are we supposed to understand that the following 249 killings were equally justified? Or that paid assassins can actually be really nice guys? Perhaps if either Hughes or O'Connor had a few more movies under their belts they would know that when it comes to cinematic violence, it's never apologize, never explain.
Equally troubling is the depiction of the genocidal dictator Vladislav Dukhovich who, whatever the real failings of the actual Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, is mainly a portrait of the Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic transplanted north: He is shown shooting a dissident's wife and daughter before the man's eyes while photos of mass graves are presented at his trial. Oldman is admirably restrained in the role but his low-key work makes you realize why the Bond movies always feature over-the-top villains with outlandish plots to conquer the world: the political realism doesn't sit well with the exploding cars, singing nuns and quipping killers.
The two female characters are also poorly handled. Kincaid's wife, Sonia, is played by Salma Hayek as a foul-mouthed harpie who can match her husband punch for punch and expletive for expletive. (Their relationship is the occasion for several more flashbacks). Hayek embraces the concept with delighted energy, but it's a limited idea and the joke wears thin.
Meanwhile, Yung is sadly bland as Bryce's ex-girlfriend. He still carries a torch for her, of course – yet more flashbacks – even if Reynolds and Yung have precious little on-screen chemistry. And while the actress bustles about conveying serious-minded professional competence, the plot actually requires agent Roussel to fail miserably at protecting Kincaid, so her unfunny character makes very little mark on the action. And predictably enough, both of these women need the men to save the day.
There's a comic postscript where, in the midst of a barroom brawl, one anonymous drinker sets himself on fire and rolls across the counter like some flammable dervish. This is Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote territory. How are we to reconcile such images with righteous vengeance wreaked on a genocidal war criminal? Not even a busload of popes could make moral sense of this one.