Did The Bodyguard Deserve its Success?
It started with Steve McQueen in mind. It proved a huge hit for Kevin Costner. So: does The Bodyguard deserve just a little more credit
It is my intention, over the coming year or two at this site, to conduct a reasonably thorough appraisal of some the cinema of Kevin Costner. I’ve written articles on a fairly regular basis for Den Of Geek arguing that he’s arguably one the boldest movie stars in Hollywood history (and there was a sizeable top 25 countdown last week too). That not only does he have a brilliant back catalogue of films to enjoy, but that at the peak of his powers – long before it became the trend to do so – he actively sought more interesting projects and scripts. There’s not a sequel in the Costner canon to date, and that’s no coincidence.
But I figured: if I’m going to take on such a long term project (and you’re getting a week’s worth to kick things off with), why start at the top? Instead, I wanted to evaluate one of Costner’s biggest box office hits, yet arguably the most maligned (if we pretend Dragonfly doesn’t exist): The Bodyguard.
Two things about it before we get going. Firstly, it’s also the Costner film that’s come closest to a sequel, with the man himself revealing that one was in development as a possible film project for the late Princess Diana. To this day, that probably remains one of the Daily Express‘ favourite ever stories. Secondly, it’s one of the few films that hinges on Costner holding a gun. For a major movie star, he’s surprisingly bereft of weaponry in some of his films. This one, he woos a pop star, and shoots his weapon. Help yourself to that.
So: is The Bodyguard really that bad? Shamelessly, I’m going for a no. I’m not taking a bullet for it (that was Kevin’s job), and I think it’s a pretty weak film. But I’d take it over at least seven different Adam Sandler movies (and counting). What’s perhaps more interesting about The Bodyguard is the film that it could have been.
How It Began
The origins of The Bodyguard actually go back some time before it finally went into production. Lawrence Kasdan, the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and director of films such as The Big Chill and Mumford, penned the script for the film in the 1970s.
At that stage, it was intended for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, with the project then falling apart due to disagreements over top billing. When it looked as if Ross was to get the top spot, McQueen walked. Back to development hell it went, before it was resurrected as a vehicle for Costner, who had been tracking the project for many years, even before he hit the big time (and who has regularly collaborated with Kasdan, on the likes of The Big Chill, the brilliant Silverado and the underrated Wyatt Earp).
Nonetheless, Costner would go on to claim that he based his performance as Frank Farmer, the bodyguard of the film’s title, on McQueen. It would be fair to say that you don’t confuse McQueen and Costner while watching the film, though.
The basic plot sees Costner as the best bodyguard in the business, with the worst haircut in the business (Harrison Ford’s character in Presumed Innocent breathed out when he saw the first poster for The Bodyguard). When Frank is offered the job of protecting the late Whitney Houston’s Rachel Marron, he instantly proclaims that “I don’t do celebrities.” Five minutes later, he’s both agreed to meet one, and thrown some knives to prove how good he is. That’s the spirit.
Going back to the gun point: the opening of the film, incidentally, is the closest Costner has arguably ever come to a flat out action role. Kasdan establishes that Frank Farmer is great, because he successfully repels an attack, and earns appreciation. As the title card comes up, Costner is in his gun firing pose. There was promo shot number one for the film right there.
“The atomic number of zinc is 30”
As you might have guessed by now, The Bodyguard is a film that’s easy to throw barbs at. Most of them will hit, even if you’re not aiming properly. It takes what feels like an exhaustive amount of time to get through some fairly uninspiring storytelling.
I don’t have the pathological aversion to rom-coms and romance movies that some do, but I never really bought the central coupling in this one. The romance simply never seems to work.
It’s a conventional arc they go through: they come together out of necessity, they don’t like each other, hang on they do, hang on they’re humping, hang on they don’t like each other again, will they come back together? But you need a pair of characters to root for when you’re trading in such conventions, and whilst individually Farmer and Marron are okay, together I never buy it. Some of the dialogue doesn’t help. Take this exchange during one row: “You can live with it or you can fire me,” Costner tells Houston. “But I can’t fuck you?” replies Houston, wishing she was more powerful in movies so she could demand better things to say.
But then Houston was a novice actress in her first film role here. As director Mick Jackson recalled “a couple of weeks before I started shooting, she said should I have acting lessons?” His response? “No, that’s the last thing you should do.”
Furthermore, producer Jim Wilson reveals in the disc extras that Costner did keep asking her for more. Costner, meanwhile, can do this kind of role without pushing himself too much. He’s always been an able romantic lead, but when you compare Frank Farmer to a character like Roy McAvoy from Tin Cup, the seemingly effortless charm is missing.
That’s part of the point, of course. This is a movie where one person is designed to be invisible – Costner’s Bodyguard – and the other seen – Houston’s global superstar. But when the ending happens and Houston gets off the plane (a moment, director Mick Jackson has admitted, that was a homage of sorts to Casablanca), it never really feels like a punch the air conclusion as the couple are reunited.
There is one whole segment of the film, of course, that’s almost beyond parody: when the Oscars are recreated. Just take a look at how The Hollywood Reporter thoughtfully puts only the Best Actress nominations on the front page of its special Oscar issue. From that point on, you know you’re in for a treat.
Costner has since revealed that this is the sequence he’d change about the film. That he wouldn’t have shown the Oscars, and instead at this point would have split Frank and Rachel up. Events would have conspired to leave Rachel in the car with the man who wants to kill her, a car chase would have ensured, and yadda yadda yadda.
I’m glad that never happened though, as said Oscars scene never fails to delight. You can see why Costner wanted it out, as it’s just too funny to be taken seriously. It also makes the second half of the film – where Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp resides for the most part – far more entertaining than the first.
Before the Oscars though, director Mick Jackson delivers a really good sequence. He starts to build the threat against Rachel Marron, especially when Farmer takes everyone out to a winter lakeside retreat. Moving the target into the middle of nowhere, for some quality bonding and an escalation of threat? Even on rewatch, I found myself opening up a fresh bag of popcorn. I ate it quietly, of course.
What Jackson does is he calms the film down for a good few minutes, and then suddenly ramps it back up. Farmer detects a threat on a wintery night, goes to investigate and this time – having beaten up someone innocent a little earlier – he’s on the money. What’s this? Footsteps in the snow, just as Whitney’s having a sing song? A boat on the lake, with Marron’s son, Fletcher? Loud music! Shouting! Costner predating Waterworld by diving in to pull Fletcher from the boat! It’s a false alarm isn’t it?
Is it shite! BOOOOM! goes the boat. Within minutes, we have a nighttime pursuit through the woods. Rachel’s sister gets killed, and Frank has a chat with his dad. Incidentally, Frank’s dad you may remember from Cliffhanger, where he pulled this very special face…
So, the Oscars. Turns out Toby from The West Wing works behind the scenes for a start…
…. and also, all of the winners and nominees are people who worked on the film. We also got Robert Wuhl telling a bad joke about the Mafia and the economy, and we get the least convincing running off stage in terror run I think I’ve ever seen in the movies.
The key problem though is that this is when the tension is supposed to escalate. Now, the film’s winter retreat had tension. The Oscars bit doesn’t. So when Costner does his moment where he finally saves the day, it just left me wondering where I’d put my In The Line Of Fire DVD. Still, the shooting is worth it for Houston’s pose here….
…. and for Costner’s natty arm sling.
More recently, Costner has been sanguine about The Bodyguard. “I liked it for the part”, he said. “I got a lot of grief for my haircut, then for the last 15 years everyone’s worn their hair that way”. Kasdan, meanwhile, has talked of story issues that he couldn’t quite resolve on the film. And Mick Jackson, who also helmed the miniseries of A Very British Coup, admits that he gets an extra drink on flights when he tells the flight attendants that he directed The Bodyguard. True story.
The Bodyguard went on to become a stage musical, and remains Costner’s biggest worldwide hit since Dances With Wolves (not counting films he has supporting roles in). It also has that sodding song in it, which wasn’t even supposed to be in it. Houston’s number in the movie was meant to be What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted, until that song turned up in Fried Green Tomatoes. Jim Wilson stumbled on, well, let’s call it the other one.
But still, The Bodyguard. Bottom line is that it’s still quite weak. It’s not outright terrible. It’s often fun. And that haircut, no matter what Mr Costner said, has not caught on.