Menashe—Yiddish movies used to be a thing; more than a hundred of them were made, mostly in Poland or the U.S., in the decades before the Second World War. After that, they became rarities—this indie drama is thought to be the first American feature made mostly in Yiddish since 1975’s drama Hester Street.
The title character is a Hasidic widower in his thirties who works in a grocery store in Brooklyn. He’s a genuinely loving father to his ten-year-old son Rieven, and doesn’t agree with the requirement that the boy go to live with his uncle and aunt until Menashe remarries, because of the belief that a child must not be raised by a single parent. He’s in no hurry to remarry, but he wants his kid back.
The simple story that ensues provides director and co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein ample opportunity for a peek into a little-understood world. The movie was shot, not quite surreptitiously but with a very low profile, in the Hasidic enclave in Borough Park, Brooklyn, with a cast of non-actors. While this generates a neo-realist, almost verité atmosphere, Menashe transcends cultural anthropology. It’s a character study, brought to life by a gifted first-time star—Menashe Lustig, on whose life the story was loosely based.
Menashe is described as a schlimazel by his own family members, ungenerously but perhaps not inaccurately—he’s a nice fellow, but he’s chronically late, late with the rent, broke, and so forth. He insists on mild rebellion from his culture—not wearing the full Hasidic regalia on the street, for instance—in ways that nettle his family and do him no favors.
As played by Lustig, however, the character is also quietly, unsentimentally, even a little exasperatingly endearing. Lustig gives us a naturalistic portrait of the man’s humor, his guilt, his anger, his mischievousness. At one point Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law says he’d like to see him become a mensch, but we in the audience see him this way already.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard—Samuel L. Jackson is the Hitman, Darius Kincaid, who specializes in killing rich, powerful scumbags; Ryan Reynolds is the Bodyguard, Michael Bryce, who escorts such scumbags to safety. Michael is recruited to get Darius, his longtime enemy, safely from prison in Manchester, England to The Hague, so that he can testify at the International Court of Justice against a brutal Belarusian dictator (Gary Oldman, who else?).
Apparently the imprisoned tyrant is pretty well-connected, as massive numbers of mercenaries try to kill Darius enroute. Hitman and Bodyguard bicker jocularly through mayhem, slaughter, even torture. Michael is persnickety, orderly, a planner, while Kincaid flies by the seat of his pants.
There's nothing new here, but strictly on its own terms, this cartoonishly overscaled buddy picture, directed by the Australian Patrick Hughes, is perfectly executed. Well, almost perfectly; it has the genre's annoying sentimental streak. And like most big-budget action flicks of the last few decades, it could be trimmed by at least ten minutes without losing anything it needs, but as it clocks in at just under two hours it doesn't quite wear out its welcome.
Yet despite the skill with which it's made, there is an imbalance to The Hitman's Bodyguard, in the unsavory contrast between the cutesy comedy and the shocking violence. When the dictator kills a man's family while he watches, and then minutes later we're back with Reynolds and Jackson and expected to crack up at their bantering, it's really jarring, and it doesn't feel like a deliberate black-comedy effect. It just feels like an adolescent sensibility, willing to use the sufferings of people under such regimes as a summer blockbuster plot point.
The leads keep us diverted from this ugliness, however. Reynolds has never been a favorite of mine, but he 's a good sport here, embracing the role of a prim foil to Jackson. That great actor has rarely gotten the chance to cut loose to quite the degree he does here. He seems to have a blast, singing fatalistic blues lyrics (there's a pretty good one written by Jackson himself, and reprised under the end credits) and cheerfully guffawing at the twists of fate that fling him about. Darius is out of his cell, so despite the carnage around him and the constant peril, anything else is gravy.