It started out as a Hollywood trend, and it’s now become a Hollywood rule: The more unassuming the middle-aged recluse character, the bigger and bloodier the mess he’s about to create. Most likely, it’ll be via gun, blade, vehicle or some creative combination of the three.
We’ve seen it happen in recent years with Liam Neeson (“Taken”), Denzel Washington (“The Equalizer”) and Keanu Reeves (“John Wick”)—established actors who we’ve seen use everything from Home Depot hammers to samurai swords in neutralizing seas of nameless goons, drug lords, conspirators with accents as weighty as the anvils about to be dropped on them (in a metaphorical sense, although the image is easy to envision, given how unlimited the limits of these movies’ homicidal imaginations tend to be). For the better part of 15 years audiences have mostly gobbled it up, and unexpected, yet reliable franchises have bloomed alongside comparatively chaste, yet ultra-reliable superhero sagas.
That franchise-blooming feels likely as well for “Nobody,” the latest offering in this increasingly pulpy and self-aware subgenre, after it opens in theaters Friday. It’s the sophomore shoot-‘em-up feature from Ilya Naishuller – whose 2015 first-person-videogame-as-movie experiment “Hardcore Henry” fully lives up to its title even as it refuses to transcend it – and it keenly understands the key equation of its forebearers: The violent acts we observe these characters doing, whether you’re watching with horror or with glee, aren’t necessarily meant to overshadow the performer filling their shoes. Irony is the cinematic currency of these works, and irony is staunchly personified in “Nobody” by the very recognizable Somebody Bob Odenkirk, whose legacy-cementing role as the shrewd but cowardly criminal lawyer Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” (and spinoff success “Better Call Saul”) would have us believe Odenkirk would play the guy buckling at the barrel-end of a gun, not standing straight in hollow-eyed defiance to it.
But audience expectations are the first of many things to be set aflame in “Nobody” as we watch Odenkirk play against type while embarking on his own revengepedition. The usual tools will be used – gun, vehicle, blade, you know the drill – and editors Evan Schiff and William Yeh, along with a mischievous sound department, earn every wince from the audience. I wavered between being awed and being numbed by the gruesome things unfolding on the screen. More tightly calibrated than uniquely stylish, the film is a moderately successful blend of the comically brutal and narratively banal, as well as a natural next step in the evolution of these hard-R, leave-the-kids-at-home, crank-it-up-to-11 action epics. Part of me wishes it found a way to be more of a leap.
“Nobody” arguably functions best as satire as it leans harder into the chaos of its casting. While Washington, Neeson and Reeves have played badasses before, whether while wielding lightsabers or stopping bullets in their paths, Odenkirk is upending more than cinematic rules regarding age limits for our action stars. He’s breaking away from the mold Hollywood has shaped for him. This is, after all, an actor whose last film role was the Christmas fire-warm March family patriarch in “Little Women.” His character here (credited as Hutch Mansell, though in the spirit of the movie’s title, I don’t recall the name being mentioned) might groan at Father March’s genteel spirit. But he might also find himself envious. Before “Nobody” begins piling up the bodies, it lightly brushes against interesting ideas about homely expectation and caged machismo; an early sequence thrillingly toggles between suburban mundanities as the days of the week fly by, rapid-fire, as if they were bullet casings littering the floor of middle-age life (in an early sign of the humor at the core of “Nobody,” Saturday and Sunday are skipped entirely). We’re watching daily cups of coffee being poured and bus passes repeatedly being swiped, and something about it feels just as life-depleting as what’s to come later.
There’s no March family-caliber bliss to be found, but it isn’t for lack of trying on Hutch’s part; between his weekly forgetting to take out the trash and complete inability to foster a meaningful relationship with his teenage son, he’s rather deficient in all the archetypal roles of a nuclear family’s head. Which might say more about Western notions of success than Hutch himself. Here, the ostensible comforts of quiet American success – the large house on the cul-de-sac, the well-paying office job, the family – serve only to fuel Hutch’s desperation for something that’s, well, not so rote. In that cleverly constructed first-act montage, you get the sense he’s a spiky coil constantly winding itself up, increasingly ready to spring. For the most carnivorous viewers, the moment it does will be a cathartic one, worthy of the shocked expletives that pass through characters’ lips and perhaps yours too. For the rest of us, there’s also something mildly engaging about the thematic contrasts Naishuller and screenwriter Derek Kolstad are attempting to draw.
I’d advise against watching any trailers. For one, “Nobody’s” poster is truthful in teasing the relentless mayhem—rest assured that faces will be carved open, knives plunged into skin, teeth knocked out (and, vitally, not always by our protagonist). But for another – and this is a slight mark against the movie – its subversions largely start and end with Odenkirk and the way he unfurls a “f**k” like it’s the lit spark on a stick of dynamite. Explosions are always imminent. Being a nobody isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, but weaponizing that ambiguity will yield its own advantages for Hutch.
The most obvious comparison here might be the “John Wick” franchise—those films share “Nobody’s” penchant for creeping up to (and occasionally breaching) the territory of cartoonishness, as well as sly suggestions about vast networks of shadow organizations. But where Keanu Reeves’s hibernating assassin charges headfirst into the void, Odenkirk’s Hutch Mansell stumbles into it, unaware one of the thugs he thrashes around one night while ostensibly protecting a young woman – or perhaps to satisfy his own dormant violent urges – is the son of a Russian mob lord. Complications ensue, and quickly escalate. Plot generalities don't surprise here so much as they shepherd along.
The film evolves into more expansive world-building and history-building in its middle act, which inevitably means its intriguing metaphors will be forced to concede attention to the visceral escapism of watching Odenkirk squashing a squad of doomed minions invading his home like they were cockroaches. “Just like old times, huh?” Hutch tells his wife as she tends to him after an initial spate of violence – the first spring of that inner coil – in one of a handful of moments suggesting Hutch isn’t exploring new capabilities for violence so much as he’s rediscovering them. That’s another recurring motif among recent movies of this blood-splattered ilk, but they have yet to grasp it as a chisel to meaningfully excavate the psychology of someone trying to meet the angel and devil on his shoulders in the middle. “Nobody” falls somewhere between Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” and last year’s unsuccessful Russell Crowe vehicle “Unhinged” in that regard.
Mostly, any and all thematic material serves as gasoline-drenched precursor for the carnage to come, a slightly more specific and slightly more self-referential way to bait us into the pure pleasures of watching Saul Goodman break bad by breaking bones. For the most part, I was glad to indulge it, even as the movie’s third act threatens to belabor the point; by the time we’re invited to laugh along to the crassness of Louis Armstrong (you already know which tune) crooning over the sight of faces being battered by a smirking Odenkirk, we’ve discovered the extent of the film’s delights. Then again, when they include a shotgun-toting Christopher Lloyd, strongly choreographed mayhem and a winking nod at more to come, those delights will be more than enough for most.
"Nobody" is rated R for strong violence and bloody images, language throughout and brief drug use. It releases in some local theaters Friday.
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Christopher Lloyd, RZA
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
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