There is no questioning that the real star of the show in the John Wick movies is the stylized, beautifully-choreographed action, but not to be undervalued is the sneakily impressive script by Derek Kolstad. Simply watching Keanu Reeves kick ass in a vacuum would have entertainment value, but what makes the series special is its effortless world building – storytelling that casually invites the audience to embrace the idea that half the population is made up of assassins who use gold coins for currency and honor a specific code. The plot is high concept, but the story is rich, and that’s what cements it as memorable beyond its gunfights, swordplay, and chase sequences.
It’s because of my admiration of Derek Kolstad’s John Wick scripts that I find myself perplexed by director Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody, the latest action movie scripted by the screenwriter. What remains consistent is his ability to set the stage for an exciting action sequence – choice setups and locations including a home invasion, a bus full of drunk thugs, and a well-prepped warehouse – but absent is the magic of the “everything else.” What starts out as interesting devolves into contrived and haphazard, and while there is the occasional punching, kicking and shooting to spice things up, there is nothing substantive to it other than the weird message of “sometimes violent people just need to be violent.”
Following a flash-forward opening that is meant to read as cool but instead just registers as tired, the film introduces us to Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk), a seemingly ordinary suburban dad who finds everyday life grinding him down with its normalcy. Week in and week out he functions in the same routine… until that normalcy is disrupted. A pair of thieves breaks into his house, and while it seems for a moment that he can shake things up a bit by taking the criminals down, he instead opts to give up and surrender to their demands. When he is shamed by a police officer in the aftermath, his wife (Connie Nielsen) and son (Gage Munroe) lose respect for him, and he learns from his daughter that her beloved kitty cat bracelet is missing, he realizes that he can no longer be passive and instead decides to take action.
Noticing a tattoo on one of the robbers, Hutch is able to use his mysterious ex-military clout to track them down – but then he is surprised to discover that they don’t have the kitty cat bracelet. It’s a narrative dead end for the movie, but the protagonist perpetuates the plot by getting on a public bus and deciding to play the role of killer vigilante. Noticing a bunch of drunk guys harassing a woman, Hutch decides to take them down, and while he sustains more than a little damage in the scuffle, he walks away the victor.
But surprise! By sheer coincidence, one of the intoxicated guys who Hutch hospitalizes is the brother of a powerful Russian gangster named Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksei Serebryakov). Kuznetsov, who just so happens to also possess the entire so-called 401k of the Russian mafia, immediately swears revenge, allowing Hutch to extend his violent fantasy with the higher stakes of putting his entire family in jeopardy.
When you break it down, Nobody's story is super unpleasant.
Not to keep harping on the comparison, but Nobody is almost literally the anti-John Wick. While the latter is a story about a hero who does everything in his power to achieve a life of peace instead of bloody chaos (making him relatable and empathetic by extension), the former is about a raging id that must be satisfied with sacrifice. It has the sheen of palatability by being structured around stylistic fight sequences, but what we’re really seeing here is a hop, skip and a jump away from the tale of a retired vicious serial killer who decides he just needs to start murdering people again because it’s too ingrained in his nature. That’s subject matter that could make for an interesting character study in the horror genre, but it’s just kinda gross framed as an action movie.
Nobody's sense of humor doesn't click or improve the film.
This grisliness could be bought back some with a proper tonal approach, rendering it a kind of satire, but its sense of humor doesn’t work. It’s a movie that’s consciously trying to look cool to the point that those efforts undercut its goal. When Hutch is screaming, “Give me the goddamn kitty cat bracelet!” at the home invaders, it’s supposed to be funny because it’s a hero ranting about something super silly – but it’s not funny because a hero ranting about something super silly is formulaic and cliché. Furthermore, the “comedy” is limited to one-liners like that and bits like “old man packing a shotgun” (sorry, Christopher Lloyd), lacking any kind of material that could be construed as commentary.
It’s really a shame because it means that Nobody fails to fully capitalize on its greatest asset. From Mr. Show to Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk’s entire 30-plus year career has been an exercise in demonstrating that he can do anything, but the script doesn’t recognize that. Hutch is a character made miserable by everyday life, and comes alive when executing his secret skills, and while there is interesting comedic potential in that idea, none of it is found on screen. That release is just expressed rage followed by a smile rather than anything extremely gonzo or, at the very least, light. It feels like the production is hampered by a desire to ensure Odenkirk registers as a serious and dangerous physical threat, expertly trained by the military – which in retrospect is unnecessary because the star sells that with the fight choreography.
(And, quickly, while we’re on the subject of untapped potential in the cast, it should be made a rule that henceforth Connie Nielsen, the Queen of Themyscira herself, should never again be locked in a basement with "the children" to be shielded from an action sequence.)
Exciting action is the one area where Nobody fully delivers.
Made in part by stunt-centric studio 87North Productions, Nobody is a movie that had some of the best in the business working to make the grappling and gun play as authentic as possible, and combined with the skills of Hardcore Henry’s Ilya Naishuller the action is the film’s greatest accomplishment – and a legitimate one. The various sequences are well orchestrated from bottom to top, with strong design, convincing performances, and visceral editing. Adding to the palpability is that Hutch’s years away from service make him far from a flawless fighter, and that lets his opponents get more than a few hits. It not only adds verisimilitude, but also, divorced from context, in-the-moment tension that heightens any given scene. It couldn’t be said that they are all fully earned, but they’re all enjoyable in the moment.
Given all of the talented involved both in front of and behind the camera, I had great hopes for Nobody as a smart character piece accentuated by stylish action and quick wit, but it ultimately delivers only one of those things. Given the effectiveness of his performance, I’d certainly be happy to watch Bob Odenkirk as the hero of another ass kicking festival one day, as he more than proves that’s another arena in which he excels, but hopefully he navigates to one with greater substance.
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