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John Wick for the married man.

By Darren Franich
March 22, 2021 at 02:35 PM EDT
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Breaking Bad launched Bob Odenkirk into one of the great career pivots. The esteemed cult comedian evolved into a trusty dramatic actor, soaking up Emmy nominations for Better Call Saul while doing exceptional supporting work for Alexander Payne, Steven Spielberg, and Greta Gerwig. Nobody (in theaters Friday) attempts a further transformation: Action hero.

Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a regular husband and father as totally normal as his name, who winds up trapped in a bulletstorm of vengeance with the local Russian mob. It's a brisk 90-plus minutes, and Odenkirk does some outrageous things on a bus. But Nobody's best instincts fall victim to shameless franchising. This should be a nasty little B-movie, not a pilot episode for the next John Wick series.

Nobody screenwriter Derek Kolstad wrote all the Wicks, and producer David Leitch co-directed the first one. This new film gradually reveals a Continental-ish assassin underworld, though Hutch resides in a much more modest environment than Keanu Reeves' wounded mega-murderer. He's the overlooked patriarch of a family that can't quite stand him. His wife, Becca (Connie Nielsen), is glamorously distant. His co-workers don't respect him. He keeps missing the garbage truck, pulling his trash can out the driveway and down the road — too late, Hutch, too late! When thieves break into his house and threaten his family, Hutch almost fights them... but doesn't. That leaves his son Blake (Gage Munroe) furious at the wuss he calls dad.

It's around this point in the movie that Hutch closes the door, takes a sip from a flask, turns on what looks like an old-timey radio, and starts talking to a distant mysterious someone who sounds just like the RZA. Hmmm. Then, a final straw: His daughter (Paisley Cadorath) reveals that, in the aftermath of the robbery, she can't find her kitty cat bracelet. The outpouring of black-ops fury that follows establishes Hutch is no mere nobody. He tracks down the criminals, but that doesn't even matter. The movie's centerpiece finds this very angry man on a lonely night looking for something to punch. That's when the Russians arrive.

Nobody
Credit: Allen Fraser/Universal Pictures

Director Ilya Naishuller is Russian himself, so it must just be conventional to cast his countrymen as the go-to baddies for any modern American globalized city. Nobody exists entirely for the scene where Hutch beats the gang in, out, around, and through the bus. Naishuller has fun with the microscopic details of ultra-violence — how, say, Hutch mindfully breaks open a guy's windpipe so the fellow can breathe through a recently broken neck.

The charm should be watching a somewhat regular guy like Odenkirk pulling these world-is-my-weapon moves. A curious problem is that the actor looks great: middle-aged fit, gaze steely, stubble well-attended, clothes that make his slim frame look like a bullet ready to fire. I don't think it spoils too much to say that Hutch has a secret past. Once it's revealed, the film becomes just another bloodfest about a highly effective action guy with a very particular set of skills, fighting off one wave of henchmen after another.

That kind of Hoard Mode cinema depends less on tension than style. You know nothing too bad will happen to our hero. What's crucial is how those not-too-bad things happen, and what sort of hyperbolic kill-streaks he performs on his attackers. A great scene sets up Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov) as the gangster of gangsters. He strolls into his nightclub, takes the stage to duet with a songstress on soaring pop music, then retreats to a VIP table for violent chatter about transnational financial conspiracy. Quite an introduction! But the Yulian-Hutch duel doesn't amount to much, and depends on a money-laundering system with certain obvious faults. Meanwhile, Hutch's family comes around rather quickly to their father's whole fight-everyone-all-the-time routine.

RZA eventually appears and his arrival involves a team-up with Hutch's father, played by Christopher Lloyd. Those are certainly two people I never expected to see in a car together, and the comedy of their interaction runs alongside the climax's ever-loopier setpieces. (One sniper bullet blasting through three heads, a mouse trap with a shotgun shell, that kind of thing.)

But Nobody also foregrounds the most uncomfortable Death Wish-y aspects of its premise. There's a revenge-of-the-beta-male vibe in the film's first act, which establishes Hutch as the victim of the castrating world around him. I don't think we ever need another movie about a murderous white guy proving to his family that he's a total badass. (Especially after, well, Breaking Bad, which brilliantly inverted that husband-gone-wild narrative into a demonic descent.) And Odenkirk whittles his natural charm down to emotionless deadpan. Why hire such a live wire performer to play someone so grim? Nobody could play well for anyone desperate to visit a recently reopened theater, but this is a rather chilly festival of carnage, too rigid to ever really spark to life. It's wickless. C

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