If you co-directed the first “John Wick” movie and then departed that franchise to helm actioners like “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde,” but still wanted a toe-hold in the “John Wick” universe, Universal’s new action movie “Nobody” seems like the perfect fit. Written by Derek Kolstad, the narrative architect of the “John Wick” franchise, and produced by David Leitch— the co-director and producer of “John Wick: Chapter 1,” who left the franchise direct some of the aforementioned movies— “Nobody” reads a little like Leitch and Kolstad looking to reunite and play again in a similar universe (only with Leitch too busy to actually direct). Because “Nobody” is essentially “John Wick” with the same formula applied, only with two small twists: Dadbod sensibilities and dry comedic wit to fit its new unlikely lead. There’s also some great character depth the movie plays with but never fulfills.
In “Nobody,” defying and playing with expectations, Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) takes on the improbable role of action star. Directed by suitable Leitch substitute Ilya Naishuller (“Hardcore Henry”), the entire premise of “Nobody” could be: what if we remade “John Wick,” but instead, reimagined it by placing a taken-for-granted Saul Goodman type in the lead role?
Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, the unassuming, unhappily married father of two, who is overlooked and unappreciated by his wife, family, and bosses. Unassertive and submissive, Hutch takes many of life’s ignominies, insults, and injustices on the chin and is essentially invisible to everyone, other than as the person you can take advantage of. But life begins to change and unlock one night when two thieves break into his suburban home. His teenage son, Blake (Gage Munroe), tries to fight back, but even though Hutch has the drop on one of the criminals, he elects to play it safe and lets him flee.
Blake is deeply disappointed and ashamed of his father, mistaking his need to keep his family safe, for cowardice, and Hutch’s already-distant wife, Becca (Connie Nielsen), seems doubly unimpressed. Sparked by the humiliation the incident produces, not to mention further triggered by his co-workers and boss (Becca’s family), who already view him as an emasculated cuck, something snaps in Hutch, and he goes on a wild rampage of revenge.
What’s revealed is: Hutch hasn’t so much gone berserk (this isn’t as layered as “Falling Down,” for example, a movie it vaguely resembles at first), as a long-dormant piece of him has finally snapped out of its fog. Because, as you guessed, Hutch is essentially another John Wick: a former killer and assassin who has left it all behind for the suburban family life. Instead of the dead dog being the trigger that unleashes the wrath of hibernating impulses for violence, it’s the indignities of life that have activated this passive killer instinct.
Now, the audience probably doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of this and just wants to know how bad-ass it is and how satisfying it feels when Odenkirk cathartically breaks bones, bloodies knuckles, and smashes skulls. Well, in this regard, “Nobody” checks all the boxes. It’s visceral, brutal, furious, well-shot in the grueling style of “John Wick” movies—meaning it doesn’t hide the action through cuts and likes to show as much punishment as it can in one shot—and its entertainingly violent (if entertaining violence is your thing). It also takes advantage of Odenkirk’s comedic chops and inserts a deadpan levity into things, finding dark humor in gruesome retribution. Great, fine, fun stuff ostensibly.
But as much as this is superficially pleasurable, it’s also kind of rote—well-crafted action that is essentially reapplying the “John Wick” formula to a very similar format. In fact, “Nobody” lets itself down because it’s the—at first anyhow—much improved 2.0 version of “John Wick,” that actually features a strong, believable character set-up and plays with human ideas of shame, humiliation, and being underestimated and undervalued as a person. God bless, Keanu, but Wick didn’t have much going for its motivations than a deceased wife and dead dog and wasn’t really interested in using any of that texture other than to get the kick-assery ignited.
However, it’s the discomforting ideas of being disregarded, disrespected, unseen, and easily pushed around in the world texture that makes “Nobody” relatable and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, the movie nearly instantaneously drops all that stuff in favor of Odenkirk creatively beating the shit out of people and also getting quite savaged himself. There’s also the element of hiding our true nature, trying to be the good father instead of the beast we are, and the compelling, and the potentially funny, idea of fatherhood and instincts to protect, married to the notions of guardian gone overboard. “Nobody” briefly flirts with this stuff (briefly, this is generous), but once the movie is switched “on,” the electrical currents of violence propel the story forward with no end in sight.
Later on, Christopher Lloyd turns up as Hutch’s father who has his own deadly secrets, so does the RZA as his adopted brother, and finally, Aleksey Serebryakov as the ruthless Russian mobster Yulian Kuznetsov that Hutch accidentally initiates into his own mission of revenge when the put-upon dad unknowingly hurts a kid connected to the unforgiving Russian mob which elevates the stakes at the end of act one. Lloyd adds some amusing comedy, Serebryakov is good as the psycho baddie out for payback, and RZA is a sufficient ace-in-the-hole in the last act.
But none of it really saves “Nobody,” or at least promotes it past the average and semi-diverting actioner it is. Yes, Naishuller is an inventive action shooter, and if highly-tuned, keyed-up action orchestration is your game, “Nobody” will light you up, no doubt. However, if you’d love to see the intriguing ideas—that the movie itself proposes upfront—about fatherhood, guardianship, violence, contempt, and neglect, at least semi-threaded throughout the action story, you’ve come to the wrong movie. There’s even a small thread of aggrieved, forgotten, disaffected, white guy that “Nobody” could have easily played into, leaning a little bit on the provocative ideas of Russell Crowe’s “Unhinged,” without being a rotten movie, but nope, “Nobody” doesn’t really bother pushing that button either. Look, “Nobody” whips ass, outwardly, sure. But ultimately, the film is content to slap as a “John Wick” alternative, and never quite leverage the Dadrock thing it has set itself up with to set itself apart. Arguably, “Nobody” is a man fighting for his dignity more than it is revenge film, but most of that is really just lost in a flurry of punches. [C+]