Why I will always love The Bodyguard

The classic romantic drama starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston offers more than retro amusement value.


Nick Herrmann

When famous singer Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) asks her new bodyguard Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) to accompany her on an evening out, he takes her to see his favourite film: Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai classic, Yojimbo. As they leave the cinema, Rachel asks Frank how many times he’s seen it. ‘Sixty-two times,’ he replies.

I don’t think I’ve quite seen The Bodyguard sixty-two times, but it might be the film I’ve rewatched more than any other. Ever since my mum showed it to me in my mid-teens (one of her own countless rewatches), I’ve returned to the film time and time again for its unique – and uniquely ‘90s – blend of suspense, drama, action and romance. This is a film that does everything, the way Hollywood films aspired to back then, before scripts got thinner and genre boundaries became so rigidly defined. It’s the reason the film can withstand countless viewings – The Bodyguard is a movie for every moment, that satisfies on every level.

But one glance at Rotten Tomatoes and it appears alarmingly underrated. One major critic recently described the film in an anniversary piece as ‘a hokey yet irresistible romantic fantasy’. It’s a view as ubiquitous as it is unjust – to dismiss The Bodyguard as a lightweight romance is to only go skin-deep. Beneath the love story lie layers of heavyweight filmmaking. Much like An Officer and a Gentleman is better remembered for the end-scene power ballad rather than the film’s gritty storytelling (portraying the struggles of Reagan-era working-class America), it’s possible that Houston’s iconic version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ distorts people’s perception and memory of The Bodyguard. While the song and performance are a big part of what makes the movie great, I’ve always felt there’s much more to it than that.

This ‘hokey’ film begins with gunfire. We join Frank moments after he’s saved the life of a client. But this also isn’t action as we understand the genre today. The scene is a sombre one, a slow crane retreating beneath Alan Silvestri’s plaintive score. For Frank, there’s nothing glamorous about what he’s done – it’s just another day at the office.

The casting and performances are pitch perfect, as is screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s immaculate characterisation. Costner’s everyman looks and questionable haircut perfectly suit someone who neglects his own life to better serve the lives of others. He doesn’t have the physique of Daniel Craig or Chris Hemsworth, nor does he need it. Farmer is a more complex kind of male hero. Costner plays him quietly (as he often does) with meticulous understatement and simmering intelligence, imbuing the character with equal parts hardness and humour.

Like his haircut, Frank is pragmatic and humble, resisting any attempts to glorify who he is or what he does. When Devaney (Bill Cobbs) approaches him to be Rachel’s bodyguard because he’s ‘the best’, Frank replies, ‘There’s no such thing.’ In response to Rachel’s question if he was tough when he played college football, he says plainly, ‘No, I was fast.’ In the beginning, when a former client asks if Frank’s hands ever shake, he gives a human answer: ‘Sometimes.’

The film presents us with a refreshing model of a good man – a model Frank learned from his father, played by the affable Ralph Waite (‘I never hit him, ever,’ Herb tells Rachel’s family over dinner). This is a film about protecting, not hurting. In a particularly enjoyable scene, we watch Frank effortlessly outmatch Rachel’s old bodyguard, Tony (Mike Starr), simultaneously proving his skill while deescalating a tense situation. In the age of John Wick, it’s refreshing to watch a fight that exists not for the spectacle but for the story (in a wonderful character moment, Frank cleans up some broken crockery mid-fight). The one time we witness Frank display real, uncontrolled violence, after one-too-many barbs from Rachel, it’s frightening to see a character we admire for his restraint abandon the carefully cultivated discipline.

Frank’s character has always resonated with me on a personal level, but without Houston’s portrayal of Rachel, the film would simply never have become the phenomenon it is today. Her bold, self-referential performance as a pop star navigating the pitfalls of fame is at once spellbinding and heartbreaking. It takes something special to make a character with such obvious unlikeable qualities so likeable, her vitality and vulnerability proving the perfect counterpoint to Costner’s cautiousness. It’s hard to believe this was Houston’s first major acting role considering how effortless it all seems. The obvious parallels between Rachel’s life and her own – particularly the life-threatening dangers that come with stardom – unfortunately serve to deepen the film further, adding layers of portent and meaning.

The Bodyguard, unlike many modern-day blockbusters, is a masterclass in that oft-repeated writing maxim: “show, don’t tell”. We know little of Frank – just enough to understand his motivations. What we do know, we learn gradually, and we learn through observation. When he inspects Rachel’s security for the first time, we are shown his expertise. When he greets his father, an entire relationship is encapsulated in their first lines to each other. (‘Lake’s a little low,’ says Frank, shaking his dad’s hand. ‘It’ll rise when it thaws,’ says Herb). As Costner himself puts it on the DVD featurette: ‘We had a song that really tied it all together, but you can’t just get a great song, and The Bodyguard was very much about language.’ I think Costner’s not just referring to the words spoken by the characters here, but the script as a whole. Kasdan’s lean writing and layered dialogue turn a straightforward story into something as keen and penetrating as one of Farmer’s throwing knives.

It’s easy to love The Bodyguard. Part of that comes from the romance, and part of that is the song that ties it all together. But this isn’t why I’ll keep rewatching it. Sure, when the moment comes, I’ll turn the music up like everyone else, but until then I’ll put the soundtrack to one side and listen to the film’s language: the dialogue, the acting, the photography. Because when something’s this rich and well-crafted, it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it sixty-two times and you know what’s about to happen – it’s just a joy to watch it unfold.

Published 29 Nov 2022

Tags: Kevin Costner The Bodyguard Whitney Houston

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