Nobody (2021)

I’ve lost track of how we’re supposed to react to Bob Odenkirk as a screen presence.  After all the obsessive rewatches of Mr. Show DVD sets in my college years I’m trained to receive Odenkirk as a sight gag, where his very presence is meant to read as a joke.  Given the barely stifled laughter that echoed his titular line reading of “My little women!” in my theater screening of Gerwig’s Little Women, I assume I’m not the only one who reacts to him that way.  Bob Odenkirk is synonymous with sketch comedy in my mind, making any scene he’s in inherently feel like a bit.  What’s confusing about that association is that Odenkirk has been much busier and more widely popular in recent years in a medium I know very little about: Prestige Television.  His roles on shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Fargo appear to be occasionally comedic in the way most TV dramas dabble in dark humor from time to time, but for the most part they’re played straight.  Bob Odenkirk is just as much of a legitimate actor now as he was a visual punchline in the past, and it’s up to the audience’s personal familiarity with specific pockets of his work to determine how he’s going to register onscreen (the same way I can’t watch Toby Huss in a serious dramatic role without first thinking of Artie, The Strongest Man in the World for at least a half-second). 

That muddled screen persona makes for an initially confusing experience in Odenkirk’s post-John Wick action vehicle Nobody.  At first glance, it’s absolutely absurd that Odenkirk would be starring in any kind of action movie at all, much less one styled after the bone-crunching ultraviolence of John Wick.  You’re not immediately invited to laugh at that casting choice, though, since Nobody plays its John Wick in the Suburbs premise entirely straight.  Odenkirk plays a self-identified “nobody”: a suburban dad with severe home invasion anxieties and an exponentially distanced relationship with his nuclear family, who’re bored by his stability.  The only early wink towards the absurdism of Odenkirk’s casting is in the brutality of its close-quarters violence.  Once a bloodlust is awakened in the milquetoast suburban dad, he over-commits to his role as a macho protector, and it’s absolutely bizarre to see Odenkirk smashing windows and crushing throats as if he were a retired, middle-age Rambo.  As that violence escalates and the suburban-America nobody’s list of enemies grows to include the entire Russian mafia, it’s clear that this is very much an intentional action-comedy; it’s just one that’s incredibly patient in paying off the set-up to the punchline.  Odenkirk starts the film in his Prestige TV Drama mode but by the end he’s a full-on sketch comedy player.

I had a lot of fun with Nobody once it fully sketched out what it’s doing.  Based on its marketing (and the involvement of producer David Leitch), I expected it to be a fish-out-of-water action comedy about suburban dad stumbling into a John Wick plot.  By the end, I was more convinced it was a direct parody of every post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller about a dad on the verge.  All the signs were there if I had known to look for them.  My borrowed library DVD started with a Liam Neeson trailer; Odenkirk grimly refers to his secretive military past, hinting at a “very particular set of skills” that could be deployed to save his family; he breaks into thieves’ apartment to retrieve his daughter’s beloved kittycat bracelet instead of, you know, his entire daughter; etc.  The opening montage is even a direct spoof of the morning-routine sequence from The Commuter (aka Taken on a Train, not to be confused with Non-Stop, aka Taken on a Plane).  The only way the Neeson spoofing could’ve been more obvious is if Odenkirk were speaking in a gravelly Irish accent, and I still didn’t catch onto what it was doing until about halfway into the runtime.  Nobody is a Mr. Show level parody of the post-Taken dad thriller; it just doesn’t make that satirical target immediately apparent.

The tonal confusion of what eventually turns out to be an over-the-top action comedy here feels both purposeful and effective.  Odenkirk’s mid-life macho fantasy of being an untapped protector of his household just waiting for a threat to quash is already funny enough when it’s played straight in the opening act.  Watching that fantasy meet the harsh reality of a suburban dad bod being pummeled by Russian mobsters mid-film is even funnier.  Then, the whole thing farcically escalates into live-action cartoon mayhem by the finale, boldly underlining the absurdism of its premise to the point where it’s unignorable.  If I were more confident on where Odenkirk is in his acting career (basically, if I watched more cable TV dramas) I might’ve caught onto that parodic sense of humor a lot sooner, but it took me a minute to get my footing on the film’s tone.  In retrospect, that makes it the perfect Bob Odenkirk vehicle despite the unlikeliness of its genre: a comedy where you’re not initially sure whether you’re supposed to treat the actor as a joke but it’s funny either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

“Pinhead.” “She-Hulk.” “Sumbitch.” “Wanker.” “Bulldog Balls.” “Asshole.”

These are just a few of the lovely pet names the double-ampersand stars of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw call each other throughout what unexpectedly turned out to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant trip to the movies. Of course, a little misguided machismo is always to be expected when venturing out to a Fast & Furious movie, but there’s usually an underlying sweetness & sincerity to the series that’s sorely missing from this scaled-down spinoff. Director David Leitch is unfortunately operating here in his Deadpool 2 shock humor mode rater than continuing the over-the-top action cinema slickness he brought to John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Fast & Furious is an absurdly melodramatic series in which global-scale action set pieces are flimsily glued together with teary-eyed speeches about what it means to be Family. It’s understandable why a spinoff from the series would operate with a smaller scale & budget in its action, but once you also substitute its Sappy Bro messaging for winking-at-the-camera meta humor there’s nothing left that feels Fast or Furious at all. It also doesn’t help that this film’s approach to “jokes” is to have its two absurdly muscly stars, The Rock & Jason Statham, insult each other for two solid hours about the size and/or existence of each other’s dicks. It’s as exhausting as it is repugnant.

The best way to encapsulate what’s so wrong-headed about this deviation from Fast & Furious tradition is to point to the godawful stunt-casting choices the movie floats as potential new members of the Family: Kevin Hart & Ryan Reynolds, two absolute clowns who believe any #haters don’t find them as funny as they believe themselves to be are #triggered #snowflakes. Their above-it-all, insincere Family Guy snark humor seeps into the rest of the film’s DNA like a fast-acting poison. In fact, the literal, potentially world-ending poison that Hobbs & Shaw are tasked to contain in this single-conflict plot is called Snowflake as a reflection of that #edgy sense of humor. You can hear it echo in a subplot wherein Hobbs & Shaw are wrongly reported by the Fake New media to be criminals instead of heroes. Worse, you’re strangled by it in every over-written one-liner insult they bitterly trade throughout, like when one describes hearing the other’s voice as feeling “like dragging my balls against shattered glass” and the other retorts, “Oh yeah, well, looking at your face is like having God projectile vomit right in my eyes.” Shut the fuck up, you cruel, unpleasant goons. The only satisfactory line of dialogue from either knucklehead is when they simultaneously point at each other and complain “This guy’s a real asshole!” I couldn’t agree more, but I don’t understand why that should entice anyone to spend 137 minutes with either of them, much less both at once.

Not everything about Hobbs & Shaw is a misstep. The third act of the film, in which our titular Heroic Assholes attend a family reunion in Samoa to overthrow their heavily armed enemies Ewok-style, is sincerely cheesy & melodramatic in a way that actually feels at home with Fast & Furious pathos. The earlier action sequences in urban spaces like London & Moscow are more aesthetically similar to the series’ past but aren’t nearly distinct enough in their goofball stunts to make much of an impression (give or take a shapeshifting motorcycle that hilariously defies all laws of physics, Transformers style). Hobbs & Shaw really finds itself in its Samoa stretch once its stars decide to get along for a common good and cool the insults for a much-needed breather. It’s too little too late, though, as the bitter taste of them flipping each other off & calling in false alarms so that security guards anally probe each other (har, har) has already poisoned the mood beyond repair. Vanessa Kirby & Idris Elba are also welcome additions to the cast who somehow shine through the winking snark humor as a badass hero and a futuristic supervillain, respectively, but both performances deserve to be in a real Fast & Furious movie instead of this Deadpool-flavored knockoff.

A lot of people complained when Statham’s character made the jump from villain to Family in this series, even starting a #JusticeForHan hashtag campaign to protest the decision. It was never really a complaint that registered with me, since the only consistent thing about the Fast & Furious series from the beginning has been its total disregard for consistency in favor of in-the-moment thrills & novelty. By the time the series had forgotten its allegiance to Coronas at its Family cookouts for crew to instead toast each other with Bud Lights or some other such blasphemy, it was clear that nothing is sacred. Apparently, that includes the one thing that has been consistent to this series up until this point: its big, stupid, dorkily sincere heart, which contrasts wonderfully with its over-the-top action. That’s a damn shame; the series is nothing special without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Although they’re clearly not made for me, I’m starting to become fascinated by Deadpool movies as a cultural curio. There usually isn’t any fun to be had from sitting through a comedy you find thoroughly unfunny and the reference-heavy Family Guy irreverence of Deadpool seems custom-built to create a laughter-free vacuum of punishing bro humor around me. What’s fascinating about these movies to me is watching them in the theater anyway, where laughter is a constant, thundering flood. To watch a Deadpool movie in public is to feel as if I am from a different planet than the rest of the room. Edgy hack jokes about suicide & child rape, lazy references to vintage pop culture ephemera, and mater-of-fact namedrops of unrelated comic book characters all land as if they’re carving out previously undiscovered, revolutionary forms of comedy the world has never seen before. Audiences gasp, involuntarily muttering “Wow” and “Oh My god” after every supposedly transgressive gag in total disbelief of the films’ comedic brilliance. Jokes that have been run into the ground though months of being repeated in advertisements somehow earn belly laughs so deep it’s a wonder no one vomits. Just as I was with the first Deadpool movie, I was befuddled throughout Deadpool 2 by why everyone around me though it was hi-larious that this “annoying prick” of a lead character (the movie’s words, not mine) broke kayfabe by saying “Patrick Stewart” instead of “Professor X” or suffered sub-Rickles insult comedy routines form real-life shitbag TJ Miller or celebrated a weapon’s forcible insertion up his enemy’s ass. I felt partly like a land mammal attempting to swim with the fish, partly like the only person in Jonestown with concerns about the Kool-Aid. I was surrounded by creatures I didn’t understand: true nerds.

Although my outsider’s discomfort watching Deadpool in public continued into this sequel, it was a marginal improvement on the first film, which barely feigned a superhero origin story around its bro-friendly meta humor. Directed by Atomic Blonde/John Wick vet David Leitch and afforded a more legitimate big studio budget, Deadpool 2 feels a little more authentic to the action genre it’s spoofing. When Deadpool himself isn’t sucking all the oxygen out of the room with his constant flood of “Ain’t I a stinker?” metacommentary, the movie manages to stage a few halfway decent gags, such as an early yakuza-themed sword-fighting montage set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (even though that exact song was already similarly employed in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, of all lowly places). Romantic tragedy, conversion therapy anxiety, and existential self-loathing are all taken more seriously here than they probably even need to be as the movie builds a time-travelling revenge plot around Deadpool’s sudden desire to have a family and the threat of X-Men antihero Cable. Genuinely entertaining performances from James Brolin (as Cable), Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison (as Deadpool’s troubled, unwanted ward), and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz (as Domino, a superhero character who much better deserves her own franchise) all helpfully distract from the Ryan Reynolds/Deadpool-shaped hole at the film’s self-corrupted center. The comedic payoff to a team-building montage spoof was lifted directly from a better-executed bit in MacGruber, but comes awfully close to achieving legitimately well-crafted humor. The film even finds ways to make Deadpool himself occasionally funny, against all odds, by pausing his dialogue to focus on the physical horrors of his superpower: a body that stubbornly refuses to die. If you generously squint at Deadpool 2 from a flattering angle in just the right light, it almost resembles a mildly amusing, ZAZ-style action spoof. Deadpool himself is always on hand to deflate that balloon, though, ruining any and all good will he can with as many child molestation quips or referrals to Cable as Thanos as necessary to spoil the mood (or bust a gut, depending on your POV).

I should probably be grateful for the minor details that break up Deadpool 2’s oppressive stench of Gen-X comic book bro humor, like the years-late inclusion of a (barely onscreen) same-sex couple in a major Marvel release or the fact that is a macho superhero who isn’t afraid of high heels or pegging. Fixating on those touches or the welcome presence of Domino & Super Ricky Baker feel like sifting though the scraps for momentary joys, however, an exercise that’s only occasionally rewarding in the few blissful moments when Deadpool himself is not cracking wise. The most the Deadpool franchise offers me, personally, is the experience of sitting in a room full of people from an entirely different planet, cowering from the deafening horror of their baffling laughter. Deadpool 2 is a slight improvement on its predecessor, but I almost wish it were much, much worse, so I could get as much out of that alienating experience as possible. The movie isn’t quite decent enough to earn genuine enthusiasm, so I’d almost prefer if I didn’t see anything of value in it at all. That way the absurdity of sitting quietly in a cinema packed with guffawing space aliens might hold more novelty for me as a cultural experience. A worse Deadpool 2 might even deter me from tuning back in for the inevitable Deadpool 3, where I’m sure to relive this comedic alienation all over again—confused, scared, and alone in a crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Atomic Blonde (2017)

There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.

As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.

Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.

Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.

-Brandon Ledet