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‘Strong bloody violence’: in the real world, horrific; at the movies, whether it’s John Wick or Nobody, an art form.
Quentin Tarantino once said, ‘If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.’
If a seemingly everyday man put some hapless goon on the ground before double-tapping them with a suppressed pistol in front of me, I’d be appalled. I’d scream, vomit even. In a film, if done with stylish, arduously-practised, no-frills precision, it evokes a primal clap, a cathartic ‘ohh’. Despite continual successes otherwise, cinema often forgets the grace of good action.
Nobody, the latest full-throttle trip from Hardcore Henry director Ilya Naishuller – you know, the first-person movie from 2015 – takes unlikely badass Bob Odenkirk and gives him a bloodbath to punch his way out of. It gave me even more joy than him saying, ‘Ah, my Little Women.’
Our friendly neighbourhood crook plays Hutch Mansell, a mild-mannered accountant living the same week in and out: wake up, miss the bin lorry, exercise, make eggs, drink coffee, go to work, see his dad (Christopher Lloyd), come home, go to a bed divided by pillows with his wife (an underutilised Connie Nielsen), repeat.
One night, two intruders break into his home looking for cash. His son (Gage Munroe) tackles one to the ground, and with a golf club in his hand, Hutch tempts retaliation. Alas, he retreats and they escape. When the police arrive, they say he did the right thing, but essentially add, ‘It wouldn’t have been me.’
Of course, there’s more to Hutch. ‘There’s a long-dormant piece of me that so very badly wants out,’ he warns. As fate would have it, some drunken reprobates walk onto his bus and start tormenting a young woman. ‘I hope these assholes like hospital food,’ he narrates, before a gnarly fight ensues. It’s glorious. Of course, one of them has a big bad Russian brother, and war follows. It’s best you don’t know much more.
Naishuller brings his own sense of style to the gunplay and fisticuffs, sewing charming needle drops into slow-mo, ultra-cool action. One use of Andy Williams’ The Impossible Dream had me borderline-emotional – not because it’s sad, or flowing with happiness, but because it knew itself so intimately. It scratched an oft-felt itch.
The biggest influence comes from Derek Kolstad, the initial architect of the John Wick franchise who’s also penned the screenplay here. Having Keanu Reeves rampage through the Russian mob after they kill his dog seems so obviously brilliant now, but it was a risk at the time. It paid off in spades, paving the way for Odenkirk’s debut as a bona fide action star.
The Breaking Bad actor took on lengthy training prior to shooting Nobody, dedicating time to showing his chops behind the reticle of a rifle as much as his ability to take and dole out hits. While it’s clearly in the Wickian/Kolstadian vein, Odenkirk’s combat is distinctly different to Reeves: frenzied, no-less persistent, defined by grit more than final-boss skill. It’s less cool, but incredibly charming.
If we’re talking about the best action films of the past 20 years, Gareth Evans’ The Raid and its superior sequel arguably take the crown; a simple premise enhanced to transcendent extremes with eye-watering choreography. CGI is used incredibly sparingly, the camera stays steadfast on the bone-breaking, knee-capping brutality, letting us appreciate the martial artistry.
There’s a place for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Fast and Furious and other big-budget, CGI-fuelled blockbusters. There’s also plenty of room for half-baked action movies without so much investment in practical, well-shot stunts; sometimes, the story (and budget) takes precedence, and that’s okay. Not everything needs to be John Wick.
But more movies should be. In her critique of Mortal Kombat – a movie I admittedly enjoyed, if mostly for gratifying my childhood experiences with the game – Vulture‘s Anjelica Jade Bastién wrote, ‘Hollywood has abandoned the sincere pleasure action films provide: pointing a camera at a person in motion to showcase their beauty and savagery.’
It’s hard to disagree. Mortal Kombat promised ‘authentic’ bouts with an incredibly capable cast, and while it ticked my boxes for character-design and fatalities, most scenes had an indiscernible kinetic energy, like a blur of movement with a spurt of blood to make it seem worthwhile.
In spite of my superhero, big screen-loving self, it pains me seeing haphazard shaky-camera editing on fights. Sometimes it’s done with purpose, like in the Bourne movies, but they’re backed up by a rawness absent in most examples, where movies create the atmosphere of mayhem without ever really showing it.
In Nobody, Odenkirk’s character smacks a man repeatedly with a pole and ruptures his throat, and you feel every whack of that metal. In a less-impassioned movie, you’d see the beginning and aftermath, but assume the in-between.
Look at the successes of films that go the extra mile: Casino Royale tactfully mixed Daniel Craig and a stuntman in that breathtaking parkour pursuit; Mad Max: Fury Road’s legendary scale speaks for itself; and Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s bathroom fight, plus every other scene, is an ode to crazed, rousing action filmmaking. Not all films have Tom Cruise, to be fair.
Roger Ebert once wrote, ‘Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world.’ But Nobody’s carnage, like its spiritual predecessors, left a current of adrenaline; it’s the kind of violence you immediately want to tell your friends about and show them so you can see their reactions, whether they’re giddy, appalled, shocked, or all three.
We’re long past the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone excess, with heroes emptying entire clips into the chest of one enemy and showing off their glistening, oiled-up biceps. This is not a criticism of those movies – I love them dearly. But the star system is different now, and the days of Commando, Rambo, Predator and Cobra are gone.
John Wick and Nobody illustrate how Hollywood could shepherd in a new age of stripped-down stories, transformative roles and pure – and I mean, pure – action.
My mum and dad couldn’t wait to show me the action films of the ’80s and ’90s when I was younger. I dived headfirst into Terminator, T2, Point Break, RoboCop and any other explosive video I could get my hands on, immersed in total VHS dream euphoria.
When it comes to my own child, Nobody and John Wick would make their curriculum, waiting on their wide-eyed discovery. There should be more; the next generations deserve their own action treasure, if only to vicariously fill my own longing for those simpler times.
I rarely feel the same way about movies as I did when I was eight. ‘Jesus, does anyone?’
Nobody hits UK cinemas on June 9.
Featured Image Credit: Lionsgate/Universal Pictures
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