09 Jun The ICC in Film: The Hitman’s Bodyguard
[Melanie O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in International Law at the UWA Law School, University of Western Australia; and an affiliated researcher of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland.]
Followers of Opinio Juris well know Kevin Jon Heller’s criticism of Crossing Lines and its portrayal of the ICC. I recently watched the action-comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, a film that includes an ICC-related storyline, and it certainly opens itself up to some well-deserved criticism about its portrayal of the ICC.
The storyline of The Hitman’s Bodyguard is that Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) is on trial before the ICC (for genocide? Crimes against humanity? It’s not clear, although genocide is hinted at, but this is not relevant to the film- he’s a bad guy who killed a lot of his people, that’s all we need to know). One witness needs to be transported under witness protection from London to Den Haag. The witness is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), a major international hitman with 250 kills under his belt. Interpol is tasked with transporting him (I’ll get to that later in this post), but it goes awry and ultimately, Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), an ex-CIA agent, now private protection agent, is tasked with protecting and transporting Kincaid. This is the crux of the film- Bryce getting Kincaid to Den Haag, and the relationship between the two.
I want to focus here on two main elements of the film: portrayal of the ICC and how it functions; and portrayal of Interpol and how it functions. Both are so far from reality, it is teeth-grindingly frustrating.
We are introduced to the trial by a news report that tells us that the trial continues, ‘with emotional testimony from many of his country’s victims’. We are also told that numerous witnesses who were to testify have disappeared. When we go to the courtroom, we see the testimony of a witness, a Professor who had published anti-Dukhovich writings, recounting how Dukhovich (personally! A dictator who gets his own hands dirty! Highly unlikely!) killed his family and sent him to a prison camp. Here’s where it goes downhill. The defence requests that the Professor’s testimony be ‘disregarded’ because it is ‘hearsay’. One of the judges bangs their gavel and says ‘sustained’. As you can imagine, here is where I groaned and put my head in my hands. Witness testimony is one of the principal sources of evidence for international courts and is not thrown out for being ‘hearsay’. In addition, international courts do not function like American courts with the in-court process of ‘objection’ and ‘sustained/overruled’. Nor, of course, do ICC judges have gavels (although they probably wish they did!).
However, what flows from this ruling is even more absurd. Because the Professor’s testimony has (instantly!) been ‘disregarded’, there is now no evidence at all against Dukhovich for his atrocity crimes. This is despite, as you recall above, the news story telling us that many victims had testified. And where are the reams of documents? The photo evidence? The video evidence? Apparently non-existent. The court has been told that there is one more witness (Kincaid), but that if he does not appear before the court by 5pm tomorrow, the case will be closed. It is completely unimaginable that this kind of deadline would occur before any of the international criminal courts or tribunals. Trials that drag on for years, suddenly have a 5pm deadline the next day?! In the film, the entire court, judges, lawyers, witness, etc, are sitting in the courtroom just waiting in case the witness shows up, literally watching the clock. In reality, unless the court is in session, the courtroom will be empty, with lawyers and judges elsewhere doing work. Of course, this is an absurd plot device designed to amp up the urgency of the transportation of Kincaid from London to Den Haag, but it is the most ridiculous part of the film.
The film also has a few scenes with Dukhovich in his ‘prison cell’. Bafflingly, far from the ICC prison in Scheveningen, Dukhovich instead appears to be housed in a 5-star hotel room, with a view, a personal attendant and room service, where he is free to stab his Interpol mole in the hand.
The only realistic ICC-related aspect of the film is when Dukhovich stands up in court to disrupt proceedings with a rant about how he is the rightful ruler of Belarus, that he recognises ‘no authority that limits my power’. This is typical disruptive behaviour by formerly powerful men on trial for atrocities; likewise the attitude that they are being persecuted for protecting their own people. In another scene in Dukhovich’s ‘prison cell’, he similarly rants ‘I come from nothing. I work all my life… Serving the people. And then they come into my country and they took it all away! And now they lock me up like a rat, feed me poison! Is this fair?’ Of course, the courtroom scene’s rant content may be accurate, but the procedure is not: to deliver his rant, in the middle of (spoiler alert) Kincaid’s testimony for the Prosecution, Dukhovich asks the judges if he can ‘say something’ and he receives a nod of assent. There is procedure to be followed in trials, and it does not include the defendant personally ‘saying something’ in the middle of a witness’ testimony.
Finally, let’s discuss the portrayal of Interpol. Throughout the film, Interpol is running the operation to move Kincaid from London to Den Haag, including offering Kincaid a deal (his wife, Sonia, played by Salma Hayek, will be released from prison in exchange for Kincaid’s testimony). The operation is run by active Interpol agents, crack field agents wearing bullet proof vests emblazoned with INTERPOL on the chest. Which is, of course, not how Interpol works. Interpol is an organisation that facilitates police coordination between jurisdictions. There are no active agents who carry out field ops. An operation across borders would still be run by local police- in this case, the British and Dutch police.
Yes, this film is meant to be fun, funny and silly (and it is, and I did still enjoy it). And maybe if I was a current or former spy, I’d watch these action movies and groan at their inaccuracies in that regard. But I’m not, I’m a lawyer who researches and teaches international law and policing, so instead I groan at inaccuracies in that regard. And let’s not even mention the fact that Sonia is held in a prison in Amsterdam, which is located in the city centre, where she has a big window with a view overlooking a beautiful main square… because everyone knows that’s where every country locates their prisons! Oh well, at least they got the royal blue colour of the ICC judges’ robes right.