Hutch Mansell has a predictable life. Some might even call it mundane. Or, judging by the look on his face — a near-blank expression that doubles as a portrait of existential despair — you could describe it as soul-deadening. Every morning, he gets up, runs a few miles, drinks his coffee. Hutch takes the bus from the suburbs to his job at a manufacturing plant owned by his father-in-law, where he’s in charge of balancing the books. Every night, this beleaguered everyman comes home to his teenage son (who barely acknowledges him) and his young daughter (who adores him), and goes to bed next to his wife (whose pillow lies between them, and tells you everything you need to know about the state of their marriage). Tuesdays are a little different. That’s the day when Hutch inevitably misses bringing out the garbage cans to the curb in time for pick-up, week in and week out. Other than that, it’s all one long, despairing blur en route to becoming worm food.
If you were going to call a film Nobody, in other words, you could not choose a more apt protagonist. And if you were going to get someone to play a sad sack like Hutch, you could do a hell of a lot worse than casting Bob Odenkirk. Comedy nerds know him as a key figure in the ’90s Uncabaret/Largo alt-stand-up scene, a Second City alumni, an SNL writer and the “Bob” of Mr. Show with Bob & David. Everyone else recognizes him as Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, a.k.a. one of the reasons that Better Call Saul has become the rare spin-off within spitting distance of besting its mothershow. McGill/Goodman lives by his wits, but Odenkirk has given this less-than-moral lawyer a sense of flop-sweat desperation since the Breaking Bad days, as well as a self-awareness tinged with shame. He can do two-bit shady and first-rate schlubby.
What you wouldn’t necessarily think of him as? The second coming of John Wick, and yet here we are. A man does not expect to type the words “Bob Odenkirk, Badass Middle-Aged Action Hero,” yet the critic must admit that he is that man. Directed by Ilya Naishuller and written by Wick trilogy screenwriter Derek Kolstad, Nobody drops the 58-year-old actor into a familiar thriller scenario: Despite his normcore appearance, Mansell has a very particular set of skills. They are the kind that have been honed over decades of being “an auditor for those three-letter agencies,” a euphemistic way of describing the sort of black-ops fixer who crunches more than numbers. He’s long put this secret past, the one involving a history of violence, behind him and gone domestic.
Then a house invasion (a narrative with apparently some unsettling life-imitating-art reverberations) awakens the beast in Mansell. A sense of personal emasculation leads to payback, which — medium-length story short — leads to the unlikely sight of a bus full of thugs getting the crap kicked out of them by this definitely-not-a-beta male. An unlikely but undeniably thrilling sight. Who are we to deny this beloved Emmy winner his Taken moment? Do we not deserve Bob Oden-Wick? Are you not entertained?!
That sequence is not the first indication that Mansell is more than meets the eye — spotting a telltale tattoo of two playing cards on Hutch’s wrist, an elderly military veteran respectfully says, “Thank you for your service” and then quickly locks himself away in a makeshift panic room. But it is a confirmation that this won’t be a half-assed coronation of the Saul star in terms of career pivoting, and it’s to Odenkirk’s credit that, by the time his bruised and battered hero limps away like an old-timey gunfighter from this scuffle, you completely buy that this guy can handle himself in a six-on-one melee. Having never played a bona fide man of action before (unless you count this gentleman, and we do), Odenkirk trained for close to two years to pull off fight scenes involving the rapid breaking of arms, the lightning-fast stabbing of torsos, the instant removal of teeth via knuckles and the inventive use of household objects to inflict pain everywhere else. He also seems to have perfected a blank, tough-guy stare — a stoneface south of Buster Keaton but north of Charles Bronson — and knows how to channel a stoicism you wouldn’t normally associate with his less strong, rarely silent previous characters.
The sheer unexpectedness of how fluidly Odenkirk takes to the genre, a surprise even more pleasant than Liam Neeson or Keanu Reeves’ late-act action turns (the former’s hulking brutishness and the latter’s lithe physicality both naturally lent themselves to the Post-Bourne School of Brutal Action Choreography from the get-go), is the saving grace of Nobody. Even after a karaoke-loving Russian mobster (Aleksey Serebryakov) declares war on Mansell and everyone goes from ballistic to ballistics, you still find yourself tuning into Odenkirk’s presence no matter how hyped-up the shoot-outs get. He is the center of gravity here, the calm in the middle of the car-flipping, bone-snapping, gun fu storm. He is the main reason to see it.
Or, more accurately, the only reason to see it. The problem isn’t with Nobody‘s conceptual double-take of a casting coup — it’s with everything else besides Odenkirk’s facility as a fiftysomething weapon of mass destruction. If you’ve seen Ilya Naishuller’s previous feature Hardcore Henry (2015), a high-concept attempt to film a movie like a first-person shooter, you know he can sustain a loud, obnoxious, one-note black joke for better or worse. He keeps the mayhem moving along, but anything beyond explosions and snaking behind his star’s literal running-and-gunning feel beyond his skill set. There is so much dead space between the death-defying set pieces that you can feel things grinding to a halt long before the next adrenaline spike hits. A recurring stylistic tic of adding mid-20th century tunes to scenes of violence (think Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me”) wears out its welcome. And while the climactic workplace siege adds in Mansell’s brother (RZA!) and father (Christopher Lloyd!!) for extra firepower, there’s an overall sloppiness to the action filmmaking here that feels a little inexcusable. Among the credited producers is David Leitch, the stuntman-turned director responsible for the John Wick movies and Atomic Blonde, and it’s hard not to imagine an alternate universe in which he’d employed his slick, streamlined touch behind the cameras instead. Memo to Leitch: Please handle the sequels.
Speaking of that: As with the Wick flicks, Kolstad introduces tiny elements of worldbuilding that suggest deeper backstories and detours. Mansell’s brother is in hiding and pretending to be dead (we don’t find out why); there is a mysterious character named “the Barber” who deals in information (among other things?); there are allusions to past missions, pulpy espionage organizations within organizations, our hero’s death-dealing being part of a long family tradition (possibly?). Unlike the Wickworld peculiarities and flourishes, however, these peripheral bits of business feel tossed off — quirks for quirks’ sake, like giving the mobster an Ethiopian-Russian henchman (Araya Mengesha, making the most of his screen time) only to treat him like exotic wallpaper. In terms of Hutch’s wife and kids, they provide reasons for him to go into paternal-protector mode and take up his old habits. But you wouldn’t call them characters, especially Mrs. Mansell; she’s an unfinished sketch of a spouse that not even Connie Nielsen can flesh out. She is present to either make him feel like less of a man or, once he comes home in beast mode, to enable him to feel like more of one. That’s it. That’s also telling.
Which brings us to what Nobody might really be about, even more than the Chaos Reigns spectacle and establishing Odenkirk as the next near-AARP-age action star. There is a lot of boom crash and a lot of bang bang, but the prevailing mood here is a whole lotta B.D.E.: Brooklyn Dad Energy. It’s tempting to see so much of the movie as a satire of midlife-crisis male malaise, from the mancave basement (that doubles as a fine crematorium) to the ’70s muscle car that Mansell “borrows” from a douchebag neighbor. Yet you’re more likely to read Nobody as one long wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which a guy can shake off the dust of suffocating middle age and, once he taps into his old self — maybe that self involves vintage ’90s concert t-shirts; maybe it means getting to kill a lot of Russians with machine guns and your bare hands — can get his mojo back, his sense of vitality back and his lady back. Maybe your days don’t need to blend into each other as you quietly march into oblivion, bro. It’s a dirty job, inspiring all these old dudes to bring back the killer inside so their self-respect will magically reappear. But somebody’s got to do it.