Nobody (2020): Ultraviolence With a Wink

Bob Odenkirk plays out of character in a hyper-violent action flick rich in impressive action sequences, ironic suggestion & machismo.

Nobody (2020): Ultraviolence With a Wink

The cinematic experience: a shared viewing in a darkened room, enormous screen and booming speakers that envelope the senses. Projected on that screen, commonly explosions, fast cars, gunshots, carnage, blood & guts. Action. Time-honoured and adrenalin soaked ingredients that feel baked into the fabric of cinema itself.

Nobody is an unusually pure form of this brand of cinema, and for those who have missed going to the theatre lately, the visceral immersion it offers might be what the doctor ordered. It functions as a simple, hyper-violent action film. Also, in some ways, it feels like a self-aware or ironic send-up of the conventions it shows.

The film has a kind of stilted style, where cringeworthy lines, clichés, and monotone deliveries are used in a way that feels deliberate or knowing. The script exaggerates some genre stereotypes to the point that it’s hard to take them seriously. Squint and you might see the actors winking. But you won't. But it feels like you might.

Bob Odenkirk makes for an unconventional and interesting lead. He is not typical action hero material, but the peculiarities of the character he plays, who is essentially a killing machine disguised as a pacifistic middle-aged father, makes things work. It's good casting that takes a while to click.

The audience is spoiled in the third act with extended, original, over-the-top action sequences. In the words of our hero, they are “excessive but glorious” (a line immediately countered with a self-aware “glorious my ass”). A lot of the action feels original, too. One memorable device is an explosive charge with the label “THIS SIDE FACES ENEMY,” which our hero carries around on his person.

Lines and mannerisms are monotone and overtly simplistic, to the point where it feels like irony. This creates the vague impression that the film might be a crafty and subtle send-up of the kind of action film it appears to be. Or, maybe it's just irony for irony's sake.

Aware that straight-laced, testosterone drenched macho dick-swinging violence doesn't go down as well with modern audiences, the film appears to distort things enough to walk both sides of the fence. The ironic tone serves the function of warding off criticism, perhaps, creating a kind of fog when it comes to where the film stands in relation to the violence shown on screen.

In any case, the film does exaggerate and subvert some genre conventions. The plot hinges around a Godfather 3-like plot point: the old “just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.” Essentially, escaping the life of crime and murder, and opting instead to live a normal life as a “nobody,” is put over as the secret dream of action heroes (and possibly villains, too). This creates quite a thoughtfully positioned space for violent fantasies to play out. Cringeworthy lines might even have a purpose, too: they make it embarrassing for the viewer to relate with the action hero in too literal a way. It's quite a clever positioning device—if it is one. Of course, it might just be bad dialogue.

These days filmmakers tend to think more about the ethical side of the violent macho behaviour they show, it's safe to say. Anything that can be construed as championing toxic masculinity gets an extra going over by the scriptwriters. If they can’t fix it, the edges are blurred with irony. The result seems to be action narratives that are coded a bit more thoughtfully, with a bit more complexity, while the bullets fly and the explosions roar.

Does it significantly change the nature of action films that worship at the altar of machismo? Not really. They are what they are. At heart it’s still all about being entertained by thrills and spills. Blood, guts, and dick-swinging cowboys killing each other in brutal and novel fashions. It’s hyper macho and ultra violent.

And as far as films like that go, this one is pretty solid.

★★★☆☆