With Nobody, Hollywood released a film in 2021 that doesn’t have an underlying social agenda.
The film was written by Derek Kolstad, who as the poster tells you at the top, was the writer of John Wick. It was directed by Ilya Naishuller. I saw that (very Russian-Jewish) director’s name and groaned a bit, but went ahead and watched the film. After watching it, I found on his Wikipedia that it was only his absent father that was Jewish.
Though the film definitely is not particularly Jewish, it is also not a Christian film or a right-wing film, other than insofar as it celebrates masculinity. There are not really any clear themes in the film at all – it’s just a masculine violence fantasy.
The movie opens at the story’s end, showing the titular “Nobody,” Bob Odenkirk’s Hutch Mansell, bloody and handcuffed, being interrogated by two federal agents. I didn’t read any spoilers before sitting down to watch it, but with the knowledge of “written by the writer of John Wick,” the entire plot of the film became obvious sixty seconds in. Hutch is some kind of retired former secret agent who has settled into a family life which he is bored by. If there is any cultural poison in the film, it is these opening minutes, before the action starts.
This notion of “people are bored by a normal life” is something that became a theme in the 60s. This was probably at least in some part because life had become more boring over the course of a generation, as the advances in technology had created gaps in the day that our ancestors did not have. That said, this idea that normal people are all sitting around hating their lives, feeling alienated from their families and work, is not good for society. If men really are sitting around “wishing for something more,” it is the result of media promoting the idea that they should be wishing for something more.
One point I have always tried to drive home is that there isn’t really anything wonderful or magical in life. I don’t mean that in a negative way, I simply mean that by the time you’re a late teenager, certainly by the time you’re 20, you should have knowledge of the full range of experience and emotion. There is no fantastic thing coming along. You just get up every day, you work, you take care of yourself, you socialize, you relax, you try to have some fun, you do what you have to do.
Films that present this “wanting something more out of life” dilemma are generally going to be harmful. However, this film arguably spins that trope, given that what the protagonist is longing for is so ridiculous. It could be seen as mocking the idea of men in their 30s and 40s longing for adventure, asking the viewer: “is this what you expect to happen?”
Hutch is seen as a timid dork by everyone in his life, including his boss and his wife and son, but he is secretly the world’s ultimate greatest badass. Every man watching it is thinking: “well, none of the people in my life know that I’m not secretly the world’s ultimate greatest badass – and I just might be.” However, when you walk away from the film, you think: “well, that was just ludicrous.” That could help someone realize that the entire concept of thinking there is something more to life than what you see is itself ludicrous. This is your life, it’s happening one minute at a time, there will be no soul-transforming romance, there will be no ecstatic religious event, you will not become the world’s ultimate greatest badass and kill hundreds of people in an hour and a half.
But it is indeed fun to think: “well, what if I did?” and it would surprise me if most men didn’t like this film, as silly as it is. Hutch gets robbed at home, and is humiliated by a woman with a gun. He eventually decides to go take revenge, after his daughter realizes the thieves took her kitty bracelet. He tracks down the thieves, as the viewer begins to realize the obvious premise that he is a retired secret badass. The thieves are poor Mexicans, and they have a crying baby, so he retrieves his watch and leaves. On his way home, spoiling for a fight, a group of inexplicably white ruffians board his bus and start harassing a woman. He white knights and manages to beat the hell out of an entire criminal gang.
The entire aesthetic of the film is perfect, but it shines during the violence. The action, while absurd, is well choreographed and intelligent. Though I had known he was the ultimate badass, I thought he would be using weapons rather than hand-to-hand combat. Bob Odenkirk getting into a hardcore melee with an entire crime gang is the most fun I’ve gotten out of any Hollywood production since I can’t even remember when.
In what must have been a plot hole, his wife patches him up after having been stabbed in the guts. That his wife would be able to patch up a serious knife wound with a first aid kit is not a plot hole, that is simply the film’s comic book-like mechanics. He is the world’s ultimate greatest badass, so knife wounds and broken bones are something he just shrugs off. But it wasn’t clear why his wife wouldn’t have more questions about what he’d been doing, after she’d seemed to have believed he was a twerp. He even says to her “just like old times, huh?”, but later in the film, she is shocked to find he’s a secret agent. There are plot problems like this throughout, which you really just have to ignore if you want to enjoy the film.
The fight on the bus triggers a series of farcical events. One of the thugs Hutch beat up was the brother of a Russian gangster, and the gangster vows revenge. When the gang shows up at Hutch’s house, he puts his family in a secret basement room, and gets in a shootout in his home. He is eventually taken down and thrown in a trunk, but is able to cause the car to crash and return to his family. He sends them on their way, and the rest of the film is nonstop action.
Odenkirk is always great, and his unexpected action hero perfectly fits the fantasy. The other high point is the Russian gang leader, played by Aleksei Serebryakov. Christopher Lloyd plays Hutch’s father, and RZA (because you have to have black people in all movies now!) inexplicably plays his brother.
Michael Ironsides actually pops up as Hutch’s father-in-law and boss.
Along with the cast, the music, cinematography and action scene choreography are all top notch. It’s almost shocking to see an action movie that isn’t nonstop jump cuts. The jump cuts hysteria that has overtaken the modern action film industry seems to be making up for the fact that they don’t have decent choreography, so they just chop it up, switching camera angles every 1.2 seconds to simulate real action. (I recently tried to watch Monster Hunter, and it was actually unwatchable, due to the jump cuts. Those filmmakers were also presumably trying to cover up the poor CGI. It made me feel like I was going to vomit.)
I didn’t catch a single piece of CGI in Nobody. I assume there probably was some, particularly during the car chase scene. But I went back and slowed the scene down, and couldn’t catch it. Most of the blood probably was also animated. I guess this is what people I respect mean when they say “there is a place for CGI.” Cars and brain bursts are both things that can be scanned and accurately portrayed using CGI, and it’s a lot different than making entire characters out of it.
Aside from some notable plot holes that you have to ignore, the script was solid, with a perfect narrative arc and good setups and payoffs (including Chekov’s actual gun).
Though Nobody isn’t based on a comic book, it was certainly inspired by comic books, and the film manages to do a much better job feeling like a comic book than any of the massive budget Marvel or DC films. The framing of the action scenes, and the incorporation of comic book violence mechanics without relying on CGI, give the sensation of a moving comic.
If you don’t like violence, you won’t like the film. It is graphically violent. It isn’t gory or gross violence, but it’s unapologetically hardcore.
For those who aren’t bothered by violence (the profanity offends me more, frankly), I can recommend the film. Again, it is a male fantasy, and it does play into the trope of “boring normal life,” but you may walk away from it with your fantasy fulfilled and also with an understanding of how trite it is to imagine that life is supposed to be like a fantasy.