For any vaguely fit actor over the age of 50, being given your own Taken was briefly seen as an enviable career boost, a chance to relive former glories, a slickly choreographed leap from an early Hollywood grave back to the sandlot. Ever since Liam Neeson swapped emoting for punching back in 2008, Kevin Costner, Sean Penn, John Travolta, Pierce Brosnan and Guy Pearce all tried to do the same but audiences wisely stayed away from their sub-par shoot-em-ups and execs were forced to realise that, duh, it’s the star rather than the sub-genre that people are magnetically drawn to. Because Neeson’s shtick was continuing to bring in solid crowds while his peers were flailing and in 2014, Keanu Reeves found a similar sweet spot with John Wick, kicking off a hugely profitable new series with a Taken-adjacent combination of simple action plot and much-loved actor.
With a burning desire for some of that Wick cash (the three films in total have made over $550m worldwide with a spin-off and TV series also planned), Universal has teamed up with the film’s writer Derek Kolstad to crack open what’s clearly hoped to be a new low-budget, high-profit action universe. This time the choice of lead is based less on conventional desirability and more on unconventional durability with Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as an unassuming suburban dad hiding a dark past in Nobody, a furiously entertaining thriller that, for me, worked far more effectively than any of Keanu’s outings, a bit more character thrown in to cushion the many broken bones.
The unusual career of Odenkirk, who in his 50s has experienced an unlikely transformation from “oh that guy” character actor to Emmy-nominated lead of a hit show, makes him a compelling action hero, confident enough to command yet with a skillset that’s more extensive and more versatile than just pure physicality. He plays the improbably named Hutch Mansell, a milquetoast everyman whose daily routine has grown as tired as his chilly marriage. When his house is set upon by a couple of low-rent thieves, he’s set on a mission to right a wrong, revealing an adeptness for violence that’s been kept far away from his family.
It’s a film cooked up from some overly familiar ingredients (as well as the blood and bullets, there’s challenged masculinity, the Russian mob, a cute pet, some noirish voiceover etc) yet Kolstad, along with Hardcore Henry director Ilya Naishuller on vibrant form, finds a way to make it all feel oddly vital. There’s a simple, shaggy charm to watching Hutch rediscover his particular set of skills, kicked off by a fantastically well-designed bus sequence that sees him scrappily take on a group of obnoxious younger men. He’s an imperfect yet resilient fighter, believably hampered by age, making him a character far more thrilling to watch than say, any one of Neeson’s no-stakes superheroes.
The escalation that follows which dominoes one good deed into one savage fight into something far greater helps Nobody avoid the storytelling-by-numbers trap that so many revenge films often fall into, mimicking a video game with the hero going from one end-of-level boss to the next. The fight scenes are also awfully effective, a jolt of brutal violence captured with a specificity that allows us to keep up with every punch and kick, a base-level competency that so many action films fail to master. Perhaps the film’s greatest ace is its relative lack of smugness, Kolstad’s script briskly racing ahead without wasting time to stand back and remark on how smart and ironic it all is, quips kept to a minimum, a lesson other action screenwriters could do with learning.
Odenkirk is a surprisingly physically adept anchor and while sure, the trope of a man only really being a man when he embraces his violent side is … not great, he tries his best to work around the regressive nature of the genre, turning Hutch into a man somewhat earnestly trying to figure out the right balance of alpha and beta. There’s little to do for Connie Nielsen as his confused wife but Christopher Lloyd gets to have some fun as his gun-toting father and along with RZA as his equally armed brother, there’s an intriguing little family dynamic that will probably be explored in the inevitable sequel (Nobodies, perhaps?).
It’s all very been here, seen that yet there’s something infinitely pleasing about a film doing very little but doing it very well, knowing just how high to aim without aiming any higher, aware of exactly what it can and can’t do. In a tight 91 minutes, without any bloat, Nobody gives us exactly what we want.