The Bodyguard (1992)
Directed by: Mick Jackson (Volcano, LA Story)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston.
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat)
The premise of The Bodyguard is very simple: Frank Farmer (Costner), former secret service agent with Presidential protection credentials, is hired by the management of singer/actress Rachel Marron (Houston) to oversee her security detail after a series of increasingly serious threats against her life. Rachel’s Diva attitude brushes against Frank’s regimental discipline and sparks fly. Yet they soon find themselves at odds between Rachel’s desire for acclaim and Frank’s job of bodyguarding, even as her potential killer lurks closer and closer. The film does a very effective job of taking this plot and bringing it to a logical and fanciful conclusions. With Kevin Costner at the peak of his career (1 year after Prince of Thieves and JFK and 3 years before Waterworld) along with Houston’s five #1 hit singles and #1 best selling soundtrack of all time, made The Bodyguard iconic. That the script was written by one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed screenwriters, almost twenty years earlier, seems almost secondary.
The script for The Bodyguard was written by Lawrence Kasdan in the 1970’s as a vehicle for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. Costner met Kasdan while working on the film Silverado (1985), which Kasdan wrote and directed, and learned about the existence of The Bodyguard. Seven years later Costner, along with Kasdan, co-produce The Bodyguard, which goes on to be one of the highest grossing films of 1992. Once one learns of the potential film involving McQueen and Ross it’s hard to shake the potential of that film from one’s mind while viewing the actual product. The star power of Costner and Houston no doubt affected the abilities of workman director Mick Jackson, which is why this quality film rattles in moments of thematic depth and finds itself slipping into the shallows of the now defunct 90’s star driven film making. That many of Kasdan’s stylistic elements rise to the surface through the glitzy veneer of the film is a testament to the writing and the eternal quality of a story like this, yet it still leaves a person wondering how much better this film could have been had it been made in 1978, before McQueen’s declining health and the cosmetizing of the hollywood film industry and the media that went along with it.
In 1961 Akira Kurosawa released the seminal and often imitated Yojimbo, which translates asbodyguard. Kasdan no doubt had this in mind while writing his film for the titular reference even appears in the film, when Frank takes Rachel on a date to the very film. Later in the film, after a carnal affair, Rachel attempts to get under the skin of Frank by coming on to a bodyguard colleague of his, even going so far as to state ‘two samurai?’. This degree of thematic syphoning allows for the essential melodrama of the piece to survive but it is a moment like this that would have played so much better with diva qualities of the streetwise Ross rather than the aloof Houston. Likewise, despite Costner’s best attempts to become McQueen, even stating that he got the McQueen haircut for the shooting of the film, knowing that McQueen’s burnt smouldering charm could have been the centrepiece rather than Costner’s all-american image gives the imagination incentive to wander. Even the nature of gritty fame and it’s potential dangers in the ‘70’s would have been far more riveting than that of the soft lighting in 90’s. There are moments of danger or melodrama that, viewed through the sanitized lens of ‘90’s filmmaking, are laughable – such as Rachel’s nonchalant reaction to a tragic event or a rural excursion back to Frank’s dad’s winter cabin. Many of the more crucial moments in the film make sense in a less connected world, but by the Access Hollywood times of the 90’s the potential for escape from the press and exposure minimizes the ability to find a deeper intimacy. It should also be noted that Frank’s character feels guilt for being absent from the assassination attempt on Regan, but in terms of audience appeal this pales in comparison to his potential failing to protect Kennedy. The film’s ending is pure hollywood sentimentalism that I’d wager would have finished on a more somber note had the picture come out in the era of the American auteur.
All of that being said, The Bodyguard is a film that we just wouldn’t see today, which is too bad because it’s better than it’s cliches suggest. A thriller/romance driven by the world’s premier actor paired with the diva of the time, with next to no visual effects. Imagine Leo DiCaprio and Beyonce making a movie like this. This film is made with such competent filmmaking skills that I think modern directors would be hard pressed to match the simple virtuosity of the giant gala sequences and on the move moments present in this film. The decor and lavish qualities of Rachel’s world never descend into a level of parody, and despite the very closed nature of the scenes in the film there is a broad diversity of imagery and locales. At the film’s climax, The Oscars, the team that made this film went so far as to cast an extensive group of supporting actors to play fictitious actors, something that seems unthinkable in today’s cameo cross reference driven movie star universe. On top of this, it cost $25 million to make and pulled in $121 million, which in 1992 was more than good enough to be considered a success.
There’s a scene in The Bodyguard where Frank sits down opposite his father and continue to play a game of chess that they have been playing slowly over the past few years. The rest of the cast sit around, looking on goofily with anticipation as each player analyzes and assesses the board. That’s how I felt watching this movie, absorbed, game play out in front of me, wondering what it’s going to do and how it’s going to break. The Bodyguard’s rewards come in the form of nostalgia, for it’s wonderful music, and cinematic appreciation for a film that finally got made, which should have been made nearly thirty years earlier. The rules of the game, the board, the pieces, they’re all arranged exactly as they should be, it’s only the players who may be different. It’s worth it to give this another play.