An emotionally satisfying story about two people who think they hate each other but discover there might just be more that unites than divides them.
Tom O’Connor’s spec screenplay for The Hitman’s Bodyguard took some of the most popular tropes of hit action thrillers – including the freewheeling hitman who can’t miss and the dreamy bodyguard whose protection never fails – and irreverently crashed them right into one another.
Tom’s career in Hollywood began in 2011 with his spec script The Hitman’s Bodyguard. The script sold immediately and landed on that year’s Black List, and Tom has been a working writer for film and television ever since.
“Balancing the comedy and the action was really tricky, and that was something I played with a lot in the very beginning of the script because I knew I wanted it to be funny without being goofy or wacky,” O’Connor recalls.
“The story of The Hitman’s Bodyguard appealed to me in part because it’s got that old-school, classic buddy-comedy flavor to it – with two contrasting characters with completely clashing life attitudes — and that’s something I wanted to maintain, but in a modernized way,” says director Patrick Hughes, who was hand-picked by Sylvester Stallone to direct the Hollywood Blockbuster The Expendables 3.
O’Connor’s screenplay also attracted the attention of two of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars, who signed up to take the lead roles, hurtling the production forward.
The world’s top protection agent [Ryan Reynolds] is called upon to guard the life of his mortal enemy, one of the world’s most notorious hitmen [Samuel L. Jackson]. The relentless bodyguard and manipulative assassin have been on the opposite end of the bullet for years and are thrown together for a wildly outrageous 24 hours. During their raucous and hilarious adventure from England to the Hague, they encounter high-speed car chases, outlandish boat escapades and a merciless Eastern European dictator [Gary Oldman] who is out for blood. Salma Hayek joins the mayhem as Jackson’s equally notorious wife.
From the beginning, Reynolds played a big hand in carving out the character who disdains chaos but finds himself sucked into it. “Ryan worked very hard during pre-production, coming up with lots of creative concepts for Bryce and his whole philosophy of life,” says Producer Les Weldon. “Then he tapped into an intuitive comedic timing that really brings the character to life. He compels you to root for this character who was once Mr. Efficient but has kind of broken down and lost his way. His performance has an emotional core but it’s also very funny.”
Reynolds describes Bryce as “a man who suffered from extraordinary hubris and took a fall from grace.” He goes on: “Bryce lost a client which has sent him into a downward spiral of shame. We find him two years after the incident and though he’s probably still the best in the business, he’s basically at a loss. Then his ex-girlfriend asks him to do this job he really doesn’t want but that he needs. In a nutshell, he has to protect a man who has spent the better part of a decade trying to kill him.”
That’s how Bryce comes to accompany his insufferable foe Kincaid through a maze of lethal obstacles, and ends up confronting himself in the process. “Bryce can be arrogant and prideful – and Kincaid pushes all those buttons,” Reynolds explains. “He’s got Bryce’s number whether Bryce would like to admit that or not. Therein lies the connection that happens between these two guys. In a weird way Kincaid ends up making my character look at himself, and in the unsettling way only Sam Jackson can.”
The rapport with Jackson was immediate and led to both actors letting it fly, says Reynolds. “Sam and I have a lot of moments where we just get to play, and that was important to creating the unique bond between our characters. Sam is so good at improv, he can play ball with the best of them, and that is my background as well so we just got out there and had as much fun as we could. We had a good thing going.”
Samuel L. Jackson admits it was Reynolds’s involvement that spurred him to sign onto the role.
“Ryan had been attached to the film and when my name popped up, it made sense. It felt like a fun idea. I’ve enjoyed watching Ryan, I’ve known him on a personal level and I like him, so I thought we’d have interesting chemistry on screen,” Jackson says.
The uniting of two of audiences’ favorite and most unpredictable stars would next require a director capable of propelling the story’s perpetual series of wild-eyed action sequences and comic scenarios.
In the action-comedy tradition, the script offered a story of escalating stakes – but where one extreme situation after the next somehow brings the hitman and his bodyguard closer to the International Criminal Court … and each other. That’s where Patrick Hughes came in; having worked with an all-star cast and plenty of action in Expendables 3, he had the high-adrenaline chops and was ready to try something different. “Patrick was able to take the reins, be the field general with the actors and bring it all to life,” notes screenwriter Tom O’Connor.
Hughes saw the potential for a chemical reaction between Reynolds as the tightly-laced, by-the-book perfectionist Bryce and Jackson as the madcap, no-holds-barred Kincaid. He was equally drawn by the fun of revisiting that staple of 80s and 90s blockbusters – the mismatched buddy comedy – in a fresh but cheeky way, replete with fast, frenetically calibrated action that could only be created in the 21st Century.
Early meetings with Ryan Reynolds helped to cement the dynamic between two men who believe – with good reason — they are mortal enemies, yet end up having each other’s backs in spite of themselves.
“Ryan and I both felt pretty adamant that at heart this is a redemption story for his character, Michael Bryce, facilitated by his job protecting Kincaid,” Hughes elaborates. “Bryce’s problem is that he’s way over-analytical about everything. He’s been trying to control all the elements in his life, from his job to his love life. Kincaid is the flip side of that – he’s loose and rock and roll and he always goes with his gut. Kincaid becomes a kind of unwilling mentor to Bryce on this crazy journey, as they go from absolutely intending to murder each other to actually understanding one another and begrudgingly even learning something about relationships.”
The producers were thrilled by Hughes’ winking but fun-loving approach. “Patrick brought such a great sense of humor but also a sensibility for big entertainment,” says Weldon. “He helped to guide Ryan and Sam into the kind of timing that allows them to play off each other with verve and gusto. Not only does Patrick understand comedy, he was able to deliver some epically fun action at the same time.”
Samuel L. Jackson says of what Hughes brought: “It’s always good to have a director who brings this much enthusiasm and energy to the set. Patrick kept us on our toes, yet gave us the freedom to just let go and do the things we needed to do to make this story work.”
Adds Reynolds: “Patrick’s wisdom and style made him perfect for a movie like this, with its slightly heightened reality and playful tone. Patrick put that tone front and center and was the guy pushing us forward every day. He helped us to create incredible action sequences that are suspenseful but also uplifting and fun rather than dark. Each set piece is unique and it will be a real adventure for audiences.”
To create action that would meet a high bar – yet could be shot in-the-moment the way Hughes envisioned — the filmmakers recruited one of the greatest stunt minds in Hollywood: British-born Greg Powell, who hails from a whole family of stunt experts and whose long list of credits ranges from the Bond action of Skyfall to the Harry Potter series to the superhero feats of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Powell has been performing stunts since the age of 14 and he has a love for coming up with inventive ideas in a field where surprise is everything — while also maintaining scrupulous safety.
Powell knew immediately that The Hitman’s Bodyguard was going to be an exhilarating challenge. “The script was truly action-packed and the sheer number of different stunts was quite exciting for me,” he recalls.
“The biggest challenge was that with so many fights throughout the story, we had to find a way to keep each one fresh, different and fun.”
The stunt supervisor began by working with Reynolds and Jackson to match their character’s fighting styles up with their divergent personalities – with Bryce dealing blows with clean precision while Jackson is more gut-driven in his reactions. “They each see their characters in very specific ways so we really worked to design the stunts to match how Ryan and Sam see Bryce and Kincaid,” he explains. Powell was particularly fired-up by the chance to push the pedal to the floor with all the vehicular exploits in the film. “We’ve got cars, motorbikes, SUVs, police cars and even speedboats racing through the canals of Amsterdam – which is something you’ve probably never seen on film,” he muses.
For Patrick Hughes, having so many talented stunt people working coupled with the fact that he could utilize numerous types of land and sea vehicles was like being a kid in the world’s greatest toy shop. “It was crazy fun,” he admits. “You really can’t be unhappy when you’re shooting in the middle of Amsterdam and doing boat, car and motorbike chases and shootouts. That’s every kid’s childhood dream. I’ve fantasized about this since I was in film school.”
Yet for all the careful coordination of the action that hurtles the film forward at every turn, everyone agrees that the biggest focus of the production was on the fun and friction between Bryce and Kincaid.
Concludes Weldon: “You can have all the fireworks, water action and car flipping in the world but at the end of the day, if you don’t have these very human relationships, the story wouldn’t work. We wanted to thrill audiences with original stunts, while being focused on drilling down into the essence of these two characters, so that it’s not only a wild spectacle but an emotionally satisfying story about two people who think they hate each other but discover there might just be more that unites than divides them.”