At the beginning of “The Bounty Hunter,” Nicole and Milo — she’s a reporter for The Daily News, played by Jennifer Aniston; he’s a former New York City police officer, played by Gerard Butler, who now plies the unglamorous trade that gives the movie its name — are divorced. It is obvious enough that this condition will reverse itself by the end, but it would have been better for everybody concerned, the audience most of all, if they had just stayed split.
On the bumpy road to reconciliation the once and future spouses fight, squabble and slap handcuffs on each other, and also scamper across New Jersey on the run from several different groups of murderous thugs. What they do not do is give the slightest indication that they belong together, except by virtue of having signed contracts to appear in this movie.
Back in the old days, when our grandparents were courting, the volatile magnetism of heterosexual monogamy — the power of men and women to attract and repel each other in equal measure — was the motor that got many a screwball comedy rolling. Remember “His Girl Friday”? “Bringing Up Baby”? “Holiday”? (If not, it’s never too late.) “The Bounty Hunter,” with its whirligig plot and incessant squabbling, shows some genetic connection to those sparklingly silly battles of the sexes. But it is also the latest evidence that, when it comes to romantic combat, we live in a more coddled, a less insouciant and also a more thoughtlessly brutal age than our ancestors did.
In spite of Mr. Butler’s grumping and harrumphing, and Ms. Aniston’s foot-stamping displays of irritation, the emotions in the movie are carefully circumscribed. There is a risk of homicide, but not of hurt feelings.
This is because characters whose feelings are supposed to be at stake are blunted, dumbed-down caricatures of notional human beings, rather than sharply etched epitomes of human behavior. Milo and Nicole broke up because she was too attached to her career, but while Ms. Aniston is able to give a reasonable impression of a person doing a job, Mr. Butler seems fundamentally incapable of giving any impression beyond that of a self-absorbed boor just awakened from a nap.
When Milo receives the assignment to bring Nicole to jail — she has skipped out on bail after an off-camera traffic incident of some kind — he reacts with glee. He’ll be able to humiliate his ex-wife and also collect a paycheck. What more could a man ask for?
But his joy is off-putting because it seems unmotivated. You spend the next 100 minutes or so waiting either for something to happen that would explain the intensity of Milo’s animus or allow him to show a warm, tender or even moderately appealing side.
What did I miss? Yes, he lights some candles and shows an occasional hint of gallantry under duress. But neither Milo nor Nicole succeeds in being very interesting, and while Ms. Aniston can fall back on her easy, nicely worn charm, Mr. Butler has only the opposite of charm to work with. His charisma is aggressively negative: a petulant, sneering, bullying disregard for other people (and for his own hygiene) that is meant, I guess, to represent a kind of rough-hewn, politically incorrect masculine honesty.
Do women go for this kind of thing? Well, “The Ugly Truth,” with Mr. Butler starring opposite Katherine Heigl, was a big hit. I suspect, though, that his character in that movie and in this one, directed by Andy Tennant (“Hitch,” “Fool’s Gold”) from a script by Sarah Thorp, is meant to offer comfort to the panicky men in the audience, who can be reassured that it’s O.K. to act like a jerk, and that in any case this guy is a bigger jerk than any of the rest of us could ever hope to be.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe shaving, tucking in your shirt or displaying good manners is just sissy stuff. And the violence of “The Bounty Hunter” is there to dispel any hint of effeminate gentleness. The action-movie elements of the plot are not worth going into — Nicole is after a big story that rubs one set of baddies the wrong way, while Milo’s gambling debts summon a different set of heavies — but they provide both a degree of momentum and an excuse for glowering displays of aggression.
It’s all kept carefully within comic bounds, sort of. The sex is tame, which is to say that there is not any to speak of. (You’d think those handcuffs would at least raise a mildly kinky frisson when connecting Ms. Aniston to a bed frame, but they don’t.) But the bloodshed produces an undercurrent of ugliness that the strenuously jokey high spirits cannot dissolve.
Consider the fate of a minor character named Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), a fellow whose skinny mustache and pastel clothes mark him as a loser, and who insists on believing that he has a chance with Nicole because she kissed him once at an office party. You expect him to be a comic punching bag, but for his sins poor Stewart is kidnapped, tortured and shot up with horse tranquilizer after his leg is broken. It’s disturbing, and somewhat baffling too, until you grasp that this hapless sucker is a surrogate for the audience.