Audience expectations are killer. They will ruin you every time, which is often why the marketing has to work so hard to manage them. A little tease here, a little explanation there — just enough to get folks interested without ruining the surprises. For a film like Nobody, the marketing is all about the bone-crunching action with the least-recognized action star at the center of it all (Little Women’s Bob Odenkirk) helmed by a director who broke the mold on action thrillers (Hardcore Henry’s Ilya Naishuller) with a script from the founder of the John Wick Universe (Derek Kolstad). There’s enough intrigue in that sentence alone that if that’s all Nobody was, it would be a fun and silly treat and nothing more. Except Nobody is a lot more. It’s an exploration of self, a rumination on what’s truly valuable in life, and that with family on your side you’re strong enough, wrapped inside a darkly hilarious action thriller package.
Monday-Friday Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) rides the bus, goes to work as an accountant for his father-in-law Eddie’s (Michael Ironside) tool and die shop, fills out expense reports, comes home, eats dinner with his family, and goes to bed only to start it all over again. Like many folks, he’s found himself in a rut where every day is basically the same and it never seems to be getting better. In fact, when a home invasion occurs and Hutch fails to take action, the looks and comments from his family and neighbors only make things worse. See, there’s been an itch festering under the surface of Hutch’s skin, born of a life lived as a lie, where the consistency of repetition fails to be the salve the once violence-drenched man expected it to be. This attack on his home offers an opportunity to scratch that itch, just once, only once, except it starts him on a collision course with Russian mobster Yulian Kuznetsov (Alexey Serebryakov) and there will be no turning back.
Let’s get a few things out of the way: If you’ve seen the John Wick films, a lot of Nobody is going to feel familiar. The bad guys are Russian, the central figure possesses a shadowy past, the conflict is personal, and there are lots and lots of bloody deaths. Frankly, the way Nobody plays out, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re watching a version of the mission that earned John Wick his freedom that’s whispered about in the first and second Chapters. This may seem like a negative to some (overused, unoriginal, uninspired), but it’s far more of a positive as it allows the audience to get in the groove of the film faster, enabling Naishuller to make the most of his 92-minute runtime. In an odd way, the story of Nobody is like an alternate universe version of John Wick where his wife lived, they had kids, and moved into the suburbs. What would that kind of simple life mean for someone whose past is quite literally redacted? This is where Nobody really finds its feet and from which the blood-drenched sequences draw their tension and resolution.
So here’s a tidbit that’s particularly of interest. The initial event, the one teased in the trailers and marketing, is that things kick off during a home invasion. According to the production notes, an event similar to this one happened to Odenkirk, leading to the actor having some discussions about how to protect ones’ family, the complexities involved, and the role of masculinity. They took this and spun it up as a film in which this happens but to someone who looks like they’d never get in a fight ever — the opposite of a Frank Moses-type (Bruce Willis in RED) or John Matrix-type (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando) — and pitched it to 87North, the production company run by Kelly McCormick and David Leitch and whose films include the John Wick films, Atomic Blonde (2017), and Hobbs & Shaw (2019). So while some might think that Odenkirk-as-brawler is someone else’s idea of subverting the hero trope, it came from the man himself. Not only that, he’s *really* good in the role. Kolstad’s script plays to his strengths and lets the world do the rest in making it believable. Odenkirk conveys that internal loathing that comes from burying some part of yourself that refuses to stay gone and the rising rage that comes from it. It’s obvious that the actor engaged in quite a bit of training to take on the role of Hutch, a part so different from his other performances, so when we see the former Mr. March dispatch a capture squad inside his home with relative ease it’s not just shocking but impressive as hell.
Setting up and executing spectacular action sequences requires someone who can make them believable and, frankly, there’s nothing disingenuous about Odenkirk’s Hutch. It certainly helps that the narrative reveals pieces of who Hutch is to the audience near the start and keeps new information coming in a variety of interesting ways. A personal favorite is a character who immediately leaves a room upon seeing a tattoo on Hutch’s wrist. This plays up Hutch’s mystique, adds credibility to what we’ve seen so far, and lets us know that we haven’t yet scratched the surface here. Helping with some additional exposition are some of the best needle drops, both diegetic and non, in recent memory. The film opens with Nina Simone’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” as the audience first meets Hutch in a post-fight state sitting in an interrogation room. The song is all about identity, which makes the title a bit of a play on words. Later, as Hutch is breaking free from the suburban identity he’s been attempting to wear for years, “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” sung by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, plays. Each song underscores a different stage of Hutch’s psychological journey and they feel so good.
The amusing thing, and one of the best secrets about Nobody, is that the home invasion isn’t the direct connection that links Hutch with the story’s eventual protagonist Yulian, but it is the first incident that serves as a relapse for someone who had escaped a violent lifestyle. The rest is Hutch coming to terms with who he is now against who he used to be. Here’s what the familial elements come to play. He’s not estranged from his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen), but there’s a distance between them that the monotony of life just makes bigger. His daughter Abby (Paisley Cadorath) is young enough to still be a daddy’s girl while his son Blake (Gage Munroe) is old enough to think he’s dad’s uncool, an idea exacerbated when the home invasion occurs. The reason for Hutch’s inaction is so brilliant, and is explained early, that it supports the notion of what someone deals with while harboring a secret duel-identity. Hutch can really only be himself around his father David (Christopher Lloyd), except David doesn’t get up to much in the nursing home he’s sequestered in, leaving the two just sitting around watching television together, barely speaking. Through the film, as Hutch comes clean with himself, these familial elements come into a sharper focus, denoting the connection between the two lives. While not wholly confirmed, there’s a sense that Becca is firmly aware of Hutch’s past life prior to the events of the film, suggestive of a closeness that was there that has been tempered through time. This, again, allows for a different kind of story that’s less True Lies (1994) and more Last Action Hero (1993).
Naishuller’s Nobody is not to be ignored. In fact, to underestimate it is to set yourself up for a missed opportunity. It may be familiar, but the way it plays with that familiarity and, through Odenkirk, finds a way to mine the familiar for something new, is fantastic. It certainly helps that the action sequences are stellar (have you seen Hardcore Henry?), the humor is perfectly placed and timed, and the balance of poignancy to action is just right. If this were to lead to a follow-up film or even a brief intersection with John Wick or Lorraine Broughton (I feel like they might’ve crossed-paths at some point), I’d gladly purchase a ticket today for a movie tomorrow. Just like Wick and Broughton’s respective stories, you can watch for the mayhem but get sucked in by the well-designed pathos.
In select theaters March 26th, 2021.
For more information, head to Universal Pictures’s official Nobody website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.