The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021) ****

Contrary to all my expectations – and the opinions of the Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregate – this was a blast. The over-the-top tongue-in-cheek action thriller is dominated by Salma Hayek who acts as a glorious foil to the bickering bad boys. Had she not been so well established, this would have been a career-making turn. It might yet give her a fresh burst of cinematic life away from the serious stuff to which she has previously devoted her screen life.

This movie follows the new rule for sequels, in that often these days they are better than the original. I had not been so taken with The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), which basically turned on the old idea of a mismatched duo with a more straightforward storyline.

This time round, disgraced bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is forced out of a very brief self-imposed retirement by Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek), who had small role in the original, to rescue husband Darius (Samuel L. Jackson) from gangsters. The main plot is straightforward enough – Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Papadopolous (Antonio Banderas) plans to hold Europe to ransom after the EU imposes financial sanction on his native country by knocking out all digital communication throughout the continent. Interpol agent Bobby O’Neill (Frank Grillo) forces the trio to work together to foil the plot.

But there are a host of wonderful, and occasionally surprisingly emotional, subplots. For a Start Sonia is desperate to become a mother with question-marks about Darius’s ability or wish to make her pregnant. Bryce has vowed to give up violence and we get to meet his father, a legendary hitman (Morgan Freeman) who adds surprising complications to the story. Bobby O’Neill is constantly at odds with boss Crowley (Caroline Goodall) and can barely understand a word spoken by Scottish interpreter Ailso (a very dry Alice McMillan). Aristotle once had a thing for Sonia and his chief bodyguard Magnusson (Tom Hopper) is by far the coolest bodyguard on show.

The action just batters along, fueled by various plot twists, and there is hardly a pause for breath as the hitmen and their adversaries destroy a ton of Europe’s most attractive cities. There are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. There’s nothing remotely serious about the plot beyond personal issues facing the trio and that the preposterousness reaches high-octane levels only adds to the fun. If it’s not a shoot-out, it’s a chase. If the trio are not killing each other, they are trying to save each other. And there is a surprise ending which may trigger another sequel.

Salma Hayek (Oscar-nominated for Frida, 2002) at full throttle both emotionally, vocally and in murderous mode steals the picture. She delivers some hilariously salty dialogue in amongst the profanity and proves no slouch in the cunning department. All guns blazing is her default. Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, 2016) I found to be surprisingly good, too, a long way from the cocky screen persona he has inhabited of late, most of the time here emotionally vulnerable, in part due to his current antipathy towards violence but also from childhood demons, and spending most of the time taking one beating after another, once so convincingly dead that hitman and wife callously dump his overboard.

Samuel L. Jackson (Glass, 2019) could play this kind of role in his sleep but he, too, is given some emotional depth. Only Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, 1998) overplays his role. Caroline Goodall (Hunter Killer, 2018) is great as the crisp authority figure and Frank Grillo (Point Blank, 2019) as the eternal underling. It’s great to see Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) back in action – and more action than you might initially expect – and there is a cameo from Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I, 1987).

Patrick Hughes reprises his directorial duties, respectively, from the original and turns in a fresh take.

I caught this on my weekly Monday Night at the Cinema outing, catching films on the big screen before they are belittled on the small screen.

Reboot Rodeo: Cruella (2021) ** and Spiral (2021)***

Cruella (2021)

Should have X-Certificate written all over it to prevent millions of kids being duped by a cynical marketing ploy that has nothing at all to do with the beloved children’s book or the animated version of 101 Dalmatians (1961) or even the 1996 live-action revamp. Under the pretense of an origin story for villainess Cruella De Ville that is more The Devil Wears Prada than Batman Begins, Disney throws a heap of cartoon characters at a big-budget picture in the hope that it can generate a new series.

Even Emma Stone’s characterization of Cruella sinks under a series of grimaces and clamped lips as she struggles to switch from put-upon orphan deserving of our sympathy to some kind of vengeful criminal mastermind. The two-dimensional earlier cartoon has a good bit more depth than this. Cruella’s nemesis The Baroness (Emma Thompson) is little more than a caricature of an English toff. Cruella is saddled with the comic henchmen from the book – Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) – while the Baroness has a bunch of one-dimensional sycophants. and a trio of teeth-baring spotty dogs rewiring their inner rottweiler. For the most part there is more going on with the costumes than with the characters, but watching a face-off between dueling fashionistas , more image than substance, soon palls.

Once the comedy is reliant on searching dogshit for jewels, rats let loose at a party, and pulling hairs from people’s noses you can see a picture that has fast run out of ideas. And this is all a pity because there is a decent germ of an idea here since orphan Cruella turns out to be every bit as psychotic as her mysterious mother, presenting the character with the choice of which path to follow. The scenario would have worked a lot better if it had been a stand-alone picture and not one that had its genesis in 101 Dalmatians and just had the guts to go down the dark side that the story clearly requires.

And all of this basically to set up a sequel as this one ends with a composer tinkling out the “Cruella De Ville” theme tune from previous films and the dogs from the original novel, Pongo and Perdita, making an appearance as puppies. As it stands it’s a pantomime where you want to hiss the villain for spoiling a good story.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)

I was never a big fan of torture porn nor for that matter of Chis Rock, too loud and brash for my liking, but oddly enough they make a compelling combination in this unusual idea for a reboot. This is pretty much a police procedural, corruption the background beat, with torture – or at least the victims – providing the clues. I was astonished to realize Rock (Bad Company, 2002) is now in his mid-50s and that could certainly account for the loss of some of his manic energy but the rest I have to admit is down to the emergence of a genuine acting talent.

Like the Russell Crowe character in American Gangster (2000) or Al Pacino (1973) in Serpico he is what cops appear to hate – incorruptible – so he is loner detective Zeke Banks until newbie detective William Scheck (Max Minghella) is forced upon him. Whatever horrific crimes are now being committed appear to point to a past when Banks’s father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson) was king cop. and to his relationship with Zeke’s current boss (Marisol Nichols).

You could view this as a cynical attempt to revive a series well past its best, and these genre mash-ups rarely work, but in this case, mostly thanks to Rock, it has all the makings of an entirely new series.

As ever, the deaths are inventive and gory. But the gory bits are well sign-posted so you can skip past them and catch up on the detective elements. Max Minghella (Horns, 2013), who has been off the movie screen for over half a decade, makes a good comeback and for once a Samuel L. Jackson character has some depth. Marisol Nichols makes a strong impression also, given that she had mostly been a television player. Perhaps as interesting as the jump taken by rock is that director Darren Lynn Bousman, who has three previous Saw outings in his portfolio, has not just managed to refresh the idea but devoted as much attention to the various detectives as to the gore.