Tuesday 15 June 2021

Breaking Dad: "Nobody"

 is a savvy, bleeding-edge update of the kind of film Hollywood has been turning out since capitalism first left its worker ants feeling like impotent schmucks. These man's-gotta-do fantasies began fomenting in that run of Fifties Westerns about homesteaders forced to take up arms so as to defend loved ones against threats from without (a genesis Nobody acknowledges by interpolating examples of the Western form amid its own action); they courted urban audiences in the 1970s (Straw Dogs, Death Wish), just as metropolitan liberals were realising they'd also been screwed over; they went ballistic in the 1990s (True Lies), as the studios deployed ever greater firepower to extend their demographic reach; and they were revived in the late Noughties (Taken), perhaps because the markets had just crashed, more likely because Luc Besson had started to do things a decade or so behind the American curve. Now we get Bob Odenkirk, pre-eminent small-screen schmuck, as Hutch Mansell, a lowly auditor for a suburban engineering firm who finds his masculinity challenged after he wusses out during a home invasion that leaves his son with a nasty shiner. Your screenwriter for what follows is Derek Kolstad, late of the John Wicks, so vengeance will clearly be on the agenda. Your director is the Russian import Ilya Naishuller, who made an impact with the 2013 short Biting Elbows: Bad Motherfucker and a loud noise with 2015's gimmicky indie Hardcore Henry, so that vengeance seems likely to be full-blooded. The twist is that Hutch Mansell is a man with a past, and a past that has left him with those special skills it's handy to have when your one-man payback mission attracts the attentions of the Russian mob. Kolstad and Naishuller simply wind this guy up, then cut him loose. "There's this thing I gotta do," Hutch growls, shortly before the mayhem steps up in earnest. His father, stored away in a carehome and played by Christopher Lloyd, croaks back: "Then you best go do it." He does.

All of which is to say that Nobody is nothing if not upfront about what it is, what it likes and what it does. Here is a film that promises violence, and which delivers on that promise with violence that is by turns gruesome, funny and cathartic. (Doubly so if you're a male viewer whose streetfighting days are behind you.) It sends you out after 90 minutes having got more or less what you came for, principally a ringside seat at the movies' unruliest East-versus-West smackdown this side of Rocky IV. There's a certain novelty in seeing a studio putting its shoulder, and some considerable filmmaking muscle, behind a semi-original screenplay - in part, I suspect, because one of the suits has an inkling that Hutch Mansell might be as franchisable as John Wick or Bryan Mills. The film boasts sharper fight choreography - and far sharper cutting - than Besson's acolytes managed; the soundtrack cues lend the action the right level of ironic distance. (Naishuller has matured somewhat since the all-out assault of Hardcore Henry.) There's another advantage to having a studio fund a disreputable B-movie such as this: better performers. Watching Odenkirk on the big screen is every bit the pleasure it is watching him at home, and a reminder of how precise actors schooled in comedy tend to be when ported into more dramatic characterisations. Nobody could merely have been a release valve after the myriad subtleties of Better Call Saul, but that precision serves Odenkirk equally well in combat, and his "hey!" upon finally meeting his Russian nemesis Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov, previously the lead in Zvyagintsev's Leviathan) strikes an unimprovable tone - it's exactly how a man who's walked into a nightclub with a simmering grudge and a Claymore up his sleeve would say hello. The pop-art stylisation of the Wick trilogy is beyond it, but that basicness is part of the fun: Kolstad and Naishuller display an amusing indifference towards backstory in particular, by having their hero blurt out gobbets to adversaries altogether too woebegone to hear. Fists do the bulk of the talking here. "It is what it is," Hutch glowers at one point. "This is me." If the movies know one thing, it's that terse men being violent can generate tremendous spectacle; we probably shouldn't expect them to communicate too much more while they're going about it.

Nobody is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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