There are many reasons why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is still my favorite movie. Among them was the realization that if freaking Michael Cera could hold his own through so many awesome fight scenes, the right filmmakers could make literally anyone into a plausible action star.
So here’s Nobody, an action vehicle for Bob Odenkirk. Seriously.
Of course Odenkirk is still primarily known as a comedian, but he’s made some incredibly savvy career moves over the past few years. He’s demonstrated such impressive dramatic chops and versatility that he’s proven himself one of the most underrated journeyman actors working today. Sure, it’s hard to picture him as a legit action star, but he’s working with the creators of the John Wick franchise and the director who brought us Hardcore Henry. Let’s do this.
Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, just a regular joe with a regular job. He’s your average white suburbanite slob. He likes football and porno and books about… well, not really, but you get the idea.
The opening of the movie firmly establishes that Hutch Mansell is living in suburbia with his wife (Becca, played by Connie Nielsen), his surly teenage son (Blake, played by Gage Munroe), and his adorable young daughter (Abby, played by Paisley Cadorath). Hutch works as a bookkeeper for a manufacturing plant owned and operated by his father-in-law (Eddie, played by Michael Ironside). His life is a monotonous grind, but it’s peaceful and prosperous all the same. Boringly good, you might say.
But then things go sideways when a couple of desperate young punks break into his house. The bad news is, the robbery goes sideways. But what’s really notable is that when Hutch had a golden opportunity to knock out one of the would-be robbers, he chose not to.
On the one hand, that might be a crucial reason why nobody got seriously hurt and the attempted robbers only got away with pocket change. On the other hand, it’s hard to shake Hutch’s personal feeling of responsibility, like he didn’t do enough to defend his home and family against violent intruders. It certainly doesn’t help that everyone else around Hutch (all men, of course) regale him with their power fantasies of killing any hostile intruder, shaming Hutch into not doing the same.
It’s a neat spin on toxic masculinity and the glorification of violence — like every man has to be the goddamn Punisher, and it’s not enough to provide a stable and loving home for his family. Is it really true that every man needs to have a gun just to get by in this world, and if so, is that really the world we want to live in? How fucked up is it that so many men out there actually fantasize about somebody breaking in to rob their house and threaten their families, just so they’ll have an excuse to murder someone and be called a hero for it?
So we’re all set up for your typical story in which a mild-mannered family man learns how to be a killing machine on the way to enacting vigilante justice. But that’s not exactly what we get. Instead, as the movie progresses, we slowly learn that there’s more to Hutch than meets the eye and there’s something else going on here. Long story short (and as spoiler-free as I can make it), Hutch retired from a long history of violence so he could live a long happy life of non-violence.
This took a while for me to get used to.
At first, I was disappointed because this new direction didn’t make very effective use of the established themes regarding masculine standards and our masturbatory, infantile definition of machismo. Moreover, while the basic trope of “everyman into superman” has been done to death, it felt like the writer/producer team behind John Wick were simply rehashing their old formula instead. However, while Hutch has more than a passing family resemblance to Baba Yaga, there are two crucial differences here.
First is that the John Wick franchise is far and away more preoccupied with world-building. With each passing sequel, the franchise devotes increasing screen time toward the laws and power structures that comprise the mercenary criminal underworld of the Continental. By contrast, the world of Hutch Mansell is much more stripped-down. While it’s certainly possible that there’s a greater world beyond some shadowy military division and the Russian mob bosses we encounter, we never spend any time exploring that world and there’s no indication that it’s anywhere near as sprawling or as intricate as the Continental. Because the film spends so little time on world-building, more of the 90-minute runtime can be spent on developing the characters and themes. It makes for a more personal story.
At its heart and core, this is a movie about a man who knows all too well what it’s like to be a badass who could take anyone in a fight. There’s a kind of power in that, and like any power, it can be addictive and destructive in equal measure. Our protagonist is a man who decided to turn away from that excitement and danger so he could chase after something safer and more fulfilling. The film portrays a different kind of masculine ideal, one who can be loving and nurturing, but capable of intense violence where necessary. A man with the wisdom to know when not to fight, who knows that those who glorify violence and talk a big game with a massive chip on their shoulder are actively working against their own self-interests. Those who go looking for trouble will often get it, and those who keep their head down will at least have the element of surprise.
All of these are of course cornerstone themes of the “John Wick” franchise (the first movie, anyway), but Nobody has a more personal angle that puts them into sharper relief.
The second big difference is that unlike John Wick, Hutch still has everything he wanted. His wife is alive and well. His home, his family, and his job are all intact. In other words, Hutch has something to lose. He’s got something to defend, and if it’s still an option at that point, he may want to go back to it when this is all over. Don’t get me wrong, grief for a dead wife and revenge for a dead dog are perfectly fine motivations, but there’s no chance that they’ll ever be saved. Hutch still has a shot at saving his family, so the stakes and motivations are much higher and more poignant.
The family element leads to another important point about the allure of the battlefield: The camaraderie between brothers in arms. There’s no substitute for the kind of shared history that comes with facing an army side by side, protecting each other and working together every step of the way. Also, there’s the process of decompressing after a huge battle and stitching up each other’s wounds, that can be a powerful bonding experience as well. By design, John Wick is a lone wolf who could never have explored this angle to such an extent, so it’s great that the filmmakers do it here.
Yet for all my talk about John Wick, I can hardly overstate the impact of the new guy. Getting Ilya Naishuller to direct a David Leitch production with a Derek Kolstad screenplay was a match made in Valhalla. There can be no doubt that all of them are cast-iron action filmmaking badasses, with a proven knack for giving us fight scenes that are stylish, inventive, and unrelentingly visceral. Yet Naishuller brings his own sensibilities that elevate the John Wick house style to a whole ‘nother level.
To start with, Naishuller cut his teeth directing badass music videos, so of course he has a uniquely awesome sense for integrating music into fight scenes. The first big fight scene is presented with absolutely no score or music, which makes it all the more harrowing to get our first taste of Hutch Mansell unleashed. When the score kicks in for round two, it sends the signal that we just kicked into a higher gear. From that point on, every stellar needle drop only adds to the giddy excitement of watching another great kill from another deadly surprise.
Of course, it certainly helps that Naishuller shows a sense of humor I’ve never seen in any of the John Wick entries. I don’t even think Leitch’s Deadpool 2 had such a fine-tuned flair for dropping visual comic relief gags in the middle of an action scene without breaking pace.
With all of that said, this is Bob Odenkirk’s show. This role needed someone who could deliver the most outrageous lines and the most heightened scenarios without ever losing that mundane blue-collar family man appeal, and Odenkirk delivers in spades. There’s one particular line that’s delivered with such terrible fury and hellfire, I almost didn’t notice how utterly ridiculous the line is. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of a Nicolas Cage performance. And yes, Odenkirk is such a phenomenal actor that he totally sells every action scene he’s in.
(Side note: Among those wretched and annoying promos that run before every movie, my theater ran a promo for this film. In an interview segment, costar RZA observed that it’s an unlikely pairing, putting Odenkirk in an action movie, but it’s like “the first guy who figured out you could put cheese and pickles together and it would make a burger taste good.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.)
Of course it certainly helps that Odenkirk is surrounded by no shortage of talent in the supporting cast. Connie Nielsen once again proves herself a seasoned pro, and Aleksey Serebryakov plays the main antagonist as a glorious hate sink. RZA doesn’t really show up until the end, but damned if he doesn’t make up for lost time in a big way. Michael Ironside is always a pleasure to see onscreen, though I was disappointed that the film didn’t make better use of his talent and charisma. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Colin Salmon — he only shows up for one scene, but he steals it.
Also, don’t fuck with Christopher Lloyd. I think this is something we all inherently knew already, but if you take away nothing else from this movie, DO NOT FUCK WITH CHRISTOPHER LLOYD.
Nobody is a movie made of, by, and for people who are way more badass than they appear on the surface. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, as far as action movies go, but Ilya Naishuller more than proves himself worthy to join the ranks of Team John Wick among the best action filmmakers in the business. But as great as the action scenes are, it’s the wonderful performances from this remarkable cast that make this into something memorable. In particular, this movie was tasked with proving that Odenkirk can handle literally anything that anyone could throw at him, and he knocked it out of the park.
It’s more than a little derivative of the John Wick films, but just different enough to forge its own identity. And anyway, if you love the John Wick films (as any right-minded action cinema fan would), then where’s the harm? Definitely check this one out.