In the lead-up to my viewing of the new action comedy “Nobody,” I’ve been jokingly describing the premise as “What if Bob Odenkirk was a John Wick?”
It turns out, that’s basically what it is — sometimes with a bit more, and sometimes with considerably less.
Directed by Ilya Naishuller and written by John Wick series scribe Derek Kolstad, “Nobody” begins by tracking the boring, repetitive day-to-day of Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk, a longtime comedy vet perhaps most famous these days for his role as slimy lawyer Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”). Hutch has a typical suburban life, including a wife and a pair of kids, but many years ago, he worked as a government-sanctioned assassin, one of the most feared and effective in the biz. He left all that behind for what he has now, but after he decides to let a pair of robbers leave his house without escalating the situation, his family and friends start questioning his masculinity. Insecure and bubbling over with rage, Hutch finds a group of young ne’er-do-wells on whom to take out his special forces-style wrath, only to accidentally run afoul of a branch of the Russian mob. Carnage ensues.
If you think this sounds remarkably similar to the first “John Wick” film, you’re in good company (in addition to Kolstad’s writing credit, “Nobody” also has a producer credit for David Leitch, who co-directed the first “Wick”). However, a movie that came to my mind nearly as often as the Keanu Reeves action vehicle was “True Lies,” the James Cameron-directed mid-90s action comedy smash starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. Though their plots aren’t similar, their aims and execution are: movies that simultaneously attempt to parody and emulate their genre target, to mixed success.
Though the Wick films can be very, very funny in their dispensation of slapstick hyper-violence, there are actual jokes in “Nobody,” most of which land pretty well. There are also moments of satire that wink toward the inherent moral indefensibility of premises like these. How else are we supposed to take Hutch’s furious, shouted insistence that he’s “a good man, a family man” as he breaks into a house and points a gun at a defenseless young father, or his lovingly scored recommitment to his marriage right before he incinerates a basement full of goons?
The issue is that “Nobody” never fully commits to one premise or another. The film suggests several times that Hutch (and his dad, a former FBI agent played by Christopher Lloyd) are bad people who are addicted to violence, and that Hutch in particular is maladjusted in his inability to feel like a man without harming someone else. However, it then frequently drops the self-examination (and even the jokes) entirely for long setpieces that revel in the exact violence it’s critiquing.
That’s not a deal-breaker on its own — the Wick films scarcely give us more moral justification for their protagonist’s actions while being far more violent — but the action here too often fails to rise above diverting. It’s certainly possible that the frequent cuts during the fight scenes are due in part to Odenkirk being unable to do all the choreography in sustained takes, but the direction seems to be an issue as well. Outside of a smackdown Hutch doles out on a bus, the fighting never rises to the clarity of superior genre takes like “Wick” or “Atomic Blonde” or even the better Liam Neeson actioners. Too often, what Hutch is doing is glimpsed or suggested rather that outright shown, and as the film goes on, it gets more and more loosey-goosey with its geography (the final fight is particularly rough in this regard, with little conception of where anyone is in relation to anyone else). There are also swings at style that come off as forced, particularly when they’re scored with ironic but obvious needle drops.
All that said, there are certainly moments of fun to be had here. While the fighting itself is sometimes lackluster, the movie’s greatest strength is in the kills it doles out that aren’t tied to Odenkirk’s skill with the fist or gun. There’s a fun scene where he crashes the car of his kidnappers, an entertaining bit of business involving mousetraps, and the movie’s final death had me hooting at its outlandishness.
Ultimately, I enjoyed “Nobody,” but I wanted to like it more. If you’re a fan of the current breed of “one amazing killer takes down all comers” movies, it should serve as a fine diversion for an hour and a half. I just wish it had picked a lane and committed to it. Too often, I could hear the gears grinding as it switched between modes.
Ryan Howard writes about pop culture for The Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.