Before there were superhero films, there were don’t-get-mad-get-even films. You might say that the two genres have nothing to do with each other. But in the early-to-mid-’70s, when the revenge film as we know it was coming into being with “Dirty Harry,” “Walking Tall,” and “Death Wish,” part of the premise of the new pulp righteousness was that a man who seethed softly and carried a big weapon to cleanse the streets of “scum” had the kind of invincibility we now associate with demigods in spandex. The revenge genre, which could also be called the defend-yourself-because-no-one-else-will genre, became a mythology, a fusion of lone-wolf Western nostalgia and right-wing nihilism that any actor with enough muscle mass and the right scowl could plug into. Sly and Arnold, Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, Bruce Willis — they all, in a way, played variations on the same character, the ruthless bruiser who could never be defeated because he had the wrath of nobility on his side. His squint of cool rage was the only superpower he needed.
Which brings us to Bob Odenkirk. You might say that “Nobody,” in which the wily star of “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad” plays a glum suburban drone who gets in touch with his inner thug-bashing badass, follows every rule of the genre. It’s got a hero who starts off as a workaday family man, with a nice wife (Connie Nielsen) and two nice kids. Then he’s attacked by criminals in his own home. After which he starts to play dirty, give into his death wish, and walk tall.
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It’s in the middle of the night that a pair of robbers slip into the house. Odenkirk’s Hutch Mansell, hearing noises, goes downstairs to investigate, and there’s a scuffle — but it’s between his teenage son, Blake (Gage Munroe), and one of the intruders. Hutch, holding a golf club for protection, can’t bring himself to use it. The robbers leave, but Hutch finds himself being called a wimp. By who? By the cops, his son, and his macho neighbor. By everyone who hears about the incident.
We think we’re watching a movie about a paragon of middle-class mildness, like Bryan Cranston’s high-school teacher in “Breaking Bad” (or Bronson’s architect in “Death Wish”), who’s about to tap into something he has never felt before. But then Hutch, in a moment of existential meltdown, takes a midnight bus ride, and the bus is soon occupied by half a dozen Russian goons looking for trouble. Hutch takes the handgun his brother gave him and pointedly drops the bullets out of the chamber and onto the floor. He then takes on the entire gang with his bare hands (and a blade or two), introducing the fight with the Eastwood-worthy line, “I hope these assholes like hospital food.” Moments later, Hutch walks away, bruised but unbowed, and his victims are indeed headed for the hospital.
How did this happen? Hutch, it turns out, was never what he seemed. He’s got quite a backstory. And “Nobody” isn’t the movie it seemed either. It was directed by Ilya Naishuller, the audacious punk video auteur who has made just one previous feature, “Hardcore Henry” (2015), a spectacularly grandiose and innovative sci-fi noir action thriller done almost entirely in one shot, all from the point-of-view of its cybernetic hero. I found it at once annoying and amazing, and “Nobody” proves again that Naishuller, born in Russia and raised in London, may be as far as you can get from a psychological realist (the spirit of sin-city graphic novels and first-person-shooter video games flows through his blood) but he’s a born filmmaker.
, and it’s a canny vehicle for Odenkirk, the unlikeliest star of a righteous macho bloodbath since Dustin Hoffman got his bear trap on in “Straw Dogs.” With his nerdishly parted receding hair, officious voice, and crestfallen air, Odenkirk could be the gloomier brother of Steve Carell, and you may wonder how we could start to buy him as the scariest person in the room. But Hutch possesses not so much brute strength as a certain deadly secret training and mad skill, and Odenkirk shows you how the payback brings him back to life. He’ll need every bit of that skill, too. One of the thugs he damaged is the brother of Yulian, a Russian mobster played by Aleksey Serebyakov (from “Leviathan”) with a fearsome magnetism that’s at once authentic and operatic. He’s like the Frankenstein’s monster of hard-partying hooligans.
The plot of “Nobody” is, in a word, preposterous, but Odenkirk’s conviction makes it work, as does the deranged twist of having Hutch team up with his retired FBI agent father (Christopher Lloyd) and adoptive brother (RZA). The movie is all about how Hutch, beneath his safe and colorless life, has to get back in touch with who he really is. And maybe that’s a metaphor for the way a lot of middle-class nobodies feel. It would be overstating things, though, to push the meaning of a thriller like this one too far. It’s just a cardboard fable. But when the ultraviolence erupts, the movie pops.
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