Opening Friday in (some) Bay Area theaters, Ilya Naishuller’s second feature “Nobody” is a much-needed shot of adrenaline in a slate of pandemic-year movies, a gripping, gleefully brutal, and yet emotionally affecting thriller.
Moscow-born, London-raised Naishuller first broke on the scene with an incredible 2013 music video for his band Biting Elbows.
A viral firecracker that currently stands at over 45 million YouTube views, it was an insane, first-person, seemingly-all-one-unbroken-shot action film that blasted through five minutes with astonishing creativity.
His 2016 feature debut, “Hardcore Henry,” was a 96-minute attempt at a first-person shoot-em-up, featuring a hero whose face we never saw, a crazy exercise in style that actually worked.
Working from a screenplay by Derek Kolstad (the “John Wick” films), Naishuller takes “Nobody” into a more human direction, beginning with a brief exploration of masculinity and cowardice.
Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) is about as normal a guy as one can get. He’s got a teen son, Blake (Gage Munroe), a younger daughter, Abby (Paisley Cadorath), and a lovely wife (Connie Nielsen), who sleeps sealed off from him by a wall of pillows.
A rapid-fire montage illustrates Hutch’s day-to-day life, Monday through Friday, jogging, drinking coffee, doing pull-ups, taking the bus to work (a construction company), crunching numbers on a spreadsheet, and routinely forgetting to take out the trash.
Then, two masked burglars, a man and a woman, break in. One has a gun. Hutch faces them calmly, gives them some cash, and his watch. Then Blake appears and locks the man in a wrestling hold. Hutch has a chance to take out the woman with a golf club, but he hesitates.
The implications of this are clear. When the police arrive, they look at him funny. (“If it had been MY family…” one starts, and then stops.) His son scowls at him, disappointment in his eyes. Hutch is a coward.
It gets worse the next day at work, when all his tough, manly co-workers — including his ex-soldier brother-in-law — have already heard the story. They, too, seem to look at him funny.
This kind of thing cuts deep in masculine psychology. Sam Peckinpah took it to its extreme with his 1971 movie “Straw Dogs,” wherein Dustin Hoffman’s meek mathematician can’t stop roughnecks from raping his wife, yet ultimately learns to take a stand.
But “Nobody” isn’t that kind of movie. It takes a sharp turn when Hutch switches on a longwave radio and listens to a mournful trumpet. The music stops and a voice comes on, the unmistakable voice of Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. He plays Harry Mansell, Hutch’s brother (the movie doesn’t bother to explain just how they’re brothers, and doesn’t need to).
Hutch describes to Harry the events of the robbery, and this time it’s clear that he knew exactly what he was doing, and could read every conceivable nuance of the situation.
When Hutch arrives home, he learns that his daughter’s Kitty Kat Bracelet is gone, likely taken by the robbers along with the nearby cash. That’s the last straw. He goes out into the night to put to good use some very impressive, and long-dormant, skills.
That’s only about 25% of where “Nobody” goes, though the path eventually leads to a showdown with a malevolent, singing, dancing Russian gangster, Yulian Kuznetsov (Alexey Serebryakov).
It also brings Hutch and Harry’s dad, David (Christopher Lloyd) cheerfully out of retirement.
After that radio conversation, the movie abruptly drops its exploration of cowardice and masculinity and focuses on the action, ultimately putting it slightly below similar movies like Martin Scorsese’s 1991 “Cape Fear” or David Cronenberg’s 2005 “A History of Violence.”
Instead, “Nobody” switches its gears to concentrate on an old Hollywood favorite: protecting and preserving the family unit.
But it works, mainly because of the brilliant casting of Odenkirk, that former “Saturday Night Live” writer and cult comedy star of “Mr. Show.” After his incredible turns on the “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” TV series, it was apparent that he was a great untapped resource as a character actor.
He’s an Everyman action hero, in a camp with Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves, rather than the chiseled Stallones, Schwarzeneggers and “Rock” Johnsons.
He most certainly got himself in shape for this role, which is easily explained by Hutch’s morning jogs and pull-ups, and doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.
His measured, raspy vocal delivery works beautifully with his dialogue, especially while uttering the title (“me? I’m nobody”) as well as the future-quotable “where is the motherf——g Kitty Kat Bracelet?”
As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that, once his masculinity was rescued and his cowardice was erased, all he wants to do is get back to his family. It’s something he truly treasures, something truly fragile, and Odenkirk sells this feeling completely.
With this new human-oriented material, director Naishuller seems as confident as ever, although he falls back on the safety net of too much slo-mo and too many music-video-style needle-drop sequences, featuring Nina Simone, Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” and even Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” How many times has that thing been played onscreen?
Nevertheless, whenever a slo-mo sequence or a song comes to an end, the film careens into some new, fresh, surprising direction and redeems itself once more. It could have been a deeper movie, to be sure, but as a fast, satisfying rush, “Nobody” does it better.
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Alexey Serebryakov, RZA
Written by: Derek Kolstad
Directed by: Ilya Naishuller
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes