The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Hughes; 2017)

Take two incredibly charismatic people, give them characters to play who don’t like each other for some reason, put them in danger, have them find a common bond through being forced to work together, and then happy ending.  It’s the most basic recipe in Hollywood writing history, and it’s what you are going to get in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

The plot is that the former ruler of Belarus (Gary Oldman) is on trial at the Hague for crimes against his people, but all of the witnesses being brought forward are being killed or have no definitive evidence.  Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former hitman currently serving time in a European prison who has some evidence on the former despot, but when Interpol agents try to get him to the trial the convoy is attacked.  With no other recourse, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, Electra from Netflix’s “Daredevil”) calls up her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) who works as a bodyguard to get him to the trial on time.

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The one saving grace in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is the raw charisma of its two stars.  Casting Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in the two leads was partially an act of genius, in that it was probably the only move that could save this travesty of a script, and partially a tragedy, in that seeing these two do something that was actually good would be an amazing experience whereas here they were merely able to make the movie watchable.  In my review of Logan Lucky, I mention quickly the difference between movie stars and actors.  What we have with Jackson and Reynolds are two movie stars, as they are just being themselves for the most part (Reynolds is forced more often into the straight man role here, so while he isn’t really acting, he is restraining himself), but they are being themselves at their most entertaining and showing a true chemistry which amplifies the hilarity of their banter.

Past the stars charisma and chemistry, though, what we have is one hell of a mess.  First of all, the plotting is so by the book formulaic that there are no surprises to be had throughout the film.  To say The Hitman’s Bodyguard is predictable is practically an understatement.  The only questions asked while watching the movie is not if the next thing we see will be an overused action cliche’, but which exact cliche’ are they going to use next?

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Past the cliche’s we have the ludicrousness of the plot.  The hitman has to get to the Hague because all the other witnesses against Belarus’s former leader are being killed, so how does sending hordes of thugs with guns shooting up major population zones, blowing up speeding cars, and generally making a loud, deadly spectacle of themselves help the case of the defendant?  Wouldn’t someone on the prosecution make some sort of case that all the witnesses for the prosecution are very obviously being attacked by an army?  That’s only one of the more obvious logical problems in a plot filled with them just to give our heroes chances to give one liners while they shoot things and drive really fast.

The tone is also all over the place.  One scene will be practically Looney Tunes level comedy while others will give us actions which are downright disturbing.  Director Hughes seems more concerned with tone on an individual scene basis and doesn’t care how it will affect the flow of the film as a whole.  One scene will give us a gruesome mass murder including children while the next will give us violence more akin to what we’d see in Tom & Jerry as mellow 80’s music plays in the background.  It’s sloppy and distracting.

The action itself is hit or miss.  Some scenes will be well shot and exciting, while others make too much use of close up shaky camera work.  There is a boat chase scene through the streets of Amsterdam late in the film which, if you can throw logic out the window, is very well done and one of the few scenes which make The Hitman’s Bodyguard worth watching, but far too many action bits are shown with no attempt to ground our vision and the camera work’s intention is less to thrill us and more to hide the fact that Reynolds and Jackson aren’t really doing their own fight scenes.

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Finally, amidst the cliched themes of two opposites not really being opposites at all and becoming best of buddies by the end, a very interesting question is raised at one point in the film.  Jackson turns to Reynolds and asks him (I’m paraphrasing) “Which is more evil?  The man who kills the bad guys?  Or the man who protects them?”  It’s a really good question, and would be an excellent theme for this film to explore.  Unfortunately past that one line the question is never even touched upon again, serving only to frustrate with the knowledge that the writers did recognize that there could have been real depth to this story, but they decided to throw it out the window and give us brainless tripe instead.

Final verdict:  The power of personality is the only thing which elevates The Hitman’s Bodyguard to the level of mediocrity.  If you want to shut your brain off completely and just enjoy two very humorous men bantering and shooting things, then The Hitman’s Bodyguard will scratch that itch.  However, with this summer delivering us so many smart action movies and comedies, I can’t recommend even to those The Hitman’s Bodyguard unless you’ve also seen all the others first.   Never dull but always dumb, that’s how I’d describe this movie as succinctly as I can.

Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts; 2017)

Kong: Skull Island you would think is somehow attached to the King Kong remake from 2005 helmed by Peter Jackson, but this installment focusing on America’s favorite gigantic ape is actually apparently connected to the Godzilla reboot from 2014.  It seems every studio feels the need to copy Marvel’s success with their film universe and start with one of their own – this is the Legendary Entertainment subsidiary of Warner Brother’s attempt at a movie universe featuring giant monsters.  While I am getting a bit weary of so many obvious and lame attempts by so many Hollywood companies to start printing their own money like Disney and Marvel are doing together, I have to admit that the idea of a series of films with the likes of Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong, and Gamera all duking it out very much appeals to the little child that still lurks inside of Shaun.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973 with John Goodman playing Bill Randa a World War II veteran and current conspiracy theorist who is trying to get a government grant to visit Skull Island, an island permanently surrounded by a nasty chain of storms such that no one can get near it, nor even see inside.  He finally gets his funding when he convinces a senator that it’s important Americans get to the island before the Russians do, because who knows what secrets could be there?   What no one else knows, including the group of soldiers and scientists Randa gets to come along on the survey with him, is that Randa knows full well that this is an island filled with giant monsters, monsters that killed his platoon in World War II and now he is here to get Captain Ahab style revenge.

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What we are given in Kong: Skull Island is essentially an incredibly high budget B-movie.  The plot is paper-thin and really just an excuse to watch big monsters attack each other.  Cliche after cliche is the order of the day in both story and dialogue.  It seems like screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Boorstein found a list of overused lines from war and action films then ordered that list so that they ended making for some sort of patchwork story.  There are a handful, barely a handful, of original ideas to be found in the story, enough that you have to wonder if the writers were able to recognize the banality of their work and either didn’t care or crafted it that way on purpose, but for the most part you will be able to predict every line spoken and every action taken by every one-dimensional character on screen.

This lack of a nuanced script does no favor to the actors, who are for the most part portraying an archetype with a quirk or two rather than an actual character.  Tom Hiddleston is charming, but little else, the supporting soldiers are pretty much just walking tropes, and Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver is reduced to pure eye candy.  The exceptions to this are the three grizzled vets of the cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and particularly John C. Reilly who all chew the scenery like few others can and bring life to their crazy old men characters through sheer force of charisma.   All three are a joy to watch when they are given center stage, but John C. Reilly goes above and beyond even the other two and gives us a portrayal that at times feels too good to be in this movie.

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Who goes to see Kong: Skull Island for nuanced writing and Oscar worthy performances, though?  If you’re at all living in this reality, you’re seeing Kong: Skull Island to see a gigantic ape kick butt and terrify some puny mortals, and on this level Kong delivers and keeps on delivering.  The creativity lost in the script was apparently saved for the action.  As we see Kong himself and the various giant denizens of Skull Island battle for supremacy of their corner of the world we are awed over and over again at the sheer bombasity of scale and ferocity.  Without entering spoiler territory, let’s just say that a lot of soldiers and scientists begin the film alive, and not too many make it to the end, and nearly every one of their deaths will make you gasp and giggle and occasionally cringe in true over the top B-movie fashion.

The visuals match the action with really well made CGI effects giving the monsters and the environments a real wow factor, and provide us with a nearly non-stop spectacle so packed with things to look and wonder at that it seems impossible they can all be caught in a single viewing.  The only two serious issues I found with the visual element of the film is first that Kong himself seemed to be constantly changing size, in one scene flicking a helicopter the size of one of his fingernails then later a person standing in front of his face is the size of his nose, and second I personally found the villainous lizard monsters of the film to be rather uninspired and never really worthy of any fear or hate other than that I knew I was supposed to because that is what the movie told me to do.

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Final recommendation:  Kong: Skull Island is big, loud, and dumb, and never pretends to be anything else.  If just my saying the words King Kong doesn’t get you at least a little excited then this probably isn’t the movie for you.  If, however, as a child you spent a lot of time growling and knocking over you block and LEGO buildings while pretending to eat the little people hiding inside then this is absolutely a film for you.  Kong: Skull Island will not make you think, it will not challenge any of your preconceptions, it will not make you want to be a better person, but it will absolutely make the somewhat destructive child inside you utterly and completely gleeful.  I’d recommend seeing it at a matinee to avoid too large of a price tag for unleashing your inner giant gorilla, but I definitely recommend seeing it.

I Am Not Your Negro (Peck; 2016)

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American author and activist whose life was often on the fringes of the American civil rights movement, but due to his self imposed exile in France and his cynical nature never ended up front and center in the movement’s spotlight.  He met and describes himself as friends with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, and I Am Not Your Negro is a narration of his writing, and in particular his writing about these three men and his thoughts about their place in history and what the history of the black man in America really is, read by Samuel L. Jackson and set to images relevant to his prose.

Essentially, watching I Am Not Your Negro is listening to a book on audio while viewing relevant images and interspersing contextual video clips.  It isn’t an innovative documentary style, but it does the trick.  The style ensures your interest never wanders and emphasizes the points made through Jackson’s voice and Baldwin’s words.  Since the words were written in the late ’70s by a man who had largely divorced himself from American culture at the time, the visuals also do the majority of the work in tying the message to the culture and issues of today.  Baldwin may be making a point about Alabama but the images we see are from Ferguson, Missouri, for example.

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What Baldwin does excellently, better than any author I’ve ever read before, is eloquently and poetically describe the experience of living black in America.  The story has been told many times, before, of course, and every person’s experience is going to be a little different, and it seems Baldwin’s may be even more different than most who get films ade about them, but his use of language is so simultaneously sumptuous and descriptive that his account hits home in a way few before ever have, these are the words of a classic author, not an everyman.

The message behind the words in I Am Not Your Negro is very modern, even if the examples and references are very outdated.  Baldwin speaks about Malcolm X, King, and Evers in some detail, of course, but he also has much to say about Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bobby Kennedy, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and many other 60’s civil rights icons.  What he has to say about these figures is very honest, sometimes praising other times condemning them for what they said and did, and making it very clear that Baldwin himself didn’t align himself with any of the era’s leaders or organizations thinking all of them had their place, but all had flawed visions, as well.  He felt liberals were condescending, the church born from a lust for power, the Black Panthers too single minded and angry.  No one escaped his criticism, but he also saw the good in most everyone as well.  Only conservatives truly eluded him, making him ask, “Why do you need a nigger?”, and admonishing them by telling them that once they figure out the answer to that question they will have their eyes opened to the evils of the United States.

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Final recommendation:  Baldwin himself makes the point, albeit in a different manner, in I Am Not Your Negro that it is pathetic that racism is still a relevant topic in the modern era of the United States, but relevant it is and will continue to be.   African Americans will unfortunately be the largest audience to see this film, most likely, and see it they should as it will give them validation, solidify their feelings with their thoughts, and will almost certainly allow them to see the problems they deal with on a daily basis at a slightly different angle.  For those of other races, seeing this film is even more important, as the lessons to be learned within are truly deep, thoughtful, phenomenally spoken, and can hopefully lead to a deeper empathy with our fellow man.

I Am Not Your Negro is normally a film I would say you could wait to see.  After all, America’s racism problem is going nowhere soon and seeing this film, as well done as it is, won’t solve those problems overnight, but given the current political climate in the United States the film takes on an urgency and importance not seen since the 1960’s.