One of the chief pleasures of ’70s popular culture was Richard Pryor’s ongoing demonstration that the F word could be used as flaunting, percussive poetry. Taking the most common of monosyllables, he created a new idiom: swearing as impromptu recitation. For a while now, Samuel L. Jackson has done something similar for the F bomb’s maternal counterpart. He gathers up the four syllables of the Oedipal obscenity and, as the mood takes him, deploys them as punctuation, emphasis, punch line, verbal default, you name it.
Jackson has many moods in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.” You’d expect nothing less from the world’s deadliest hit man, Jackson’s character. Wanting to spring his wife from an Amsterdam prison (Salma Hayek plays the wife, and wouldn’t you want to double date with that couple?), he agrees to testify at the International Court of Justice against a Belarus bad guy (Gary Oldman, inevitably).
There is a problem. Seemingly half of the male population of Belarus have Uzis and are out to keep Jackson, currently under arrest in Manchester, England, from getting to the Netherlands. Enter Ryan Reynolds as a down-on-his-luck protection agent. “Let’s focus on dying of natural causes,” he reminds an unruly client. “Boring is always best.”
Boring? Best? Samuel L. Jackson? You can see where this is going. Patrick Hughes’s previous directing credit was “The Expendables 3,” so you can really see where this is going. “My job is to keep you out of harm’s way,” Reynolds warns Jackson. “I am harm’s way,” Jackson warns back.
Even by the junk-food standards of summer action comedies, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is overlong, over-violent, and over the top. By the time of the fourth smash-crash-bash set piece — Manchester gets one, Amsterdam another, and the Hague, that world capital of international cooperation, endures two — “Downton Abbey” reruns are looking better and better.
Even worse is an intermittent tonal problem. It’s not coarseness. That’s to be expected. Remember, Reynolds starred in “Deadpool.” It’s not even having a villain who commits atrocities. Unless it’s garish, movie villainy hardly registers anymore. No, it’s showing the villain committing the atrocities (admittedly, the worst instance we only see in photographs).
It takes a lot of Samuel L. Jackson to compensate for something like that, and compensate he does. This is a man who can get an audience to erupt with laughter simply by saying “Please” — and that’s without a four-syllable word fore or aft. Dry and sardonic, Reynolds has the good sense mostly to play straight man. We do get to hear him do a Jackson imitation. It’s not bad. Jackson waits until the very end of the movie to top that, with a Macaulay Culkin imitation — yes, you read that right — and it’s a . . . oh, never mind.
THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD
Directed by Patrick Hughes. Written by Tom O’Connor. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 118 minutes. R (strong violence and language throughout).Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.