Thursday, June 24, 2021

Back in Action: NOBODY and WRATH OF MAN

The lizard-brained appeal of the shoot-‘em-up Nobody is a little misjudged. It stars Bob Odenkirk, the great sketch comedian of Mr. Show turned wry and soulful character actor star of Better Call Saul, as a suburban family man in a rut. An early montage shows us his daily routine of coffee and commute and office work filling spreadsheets. His wife won’t sleep with him. His son doesn’t respect him. Day after day. This is interrupted by a pair of semi-bumbling thieves who break into his home and steal just a few trinkets. Feeling emasculated for failing to stop the robbery, he roams the city looking for trouble, eventually beating up some shady characters on a city bus with surprisingly adept combat moves. Turns out he’s a former secret agent retired in protected obscurity. Also turns out he just beat up some guys connected to a Russian mobster, who sends dozens of anonymous goons after him, leaving this humble middle-aged dope no choice but to send his wife and kids away while he goes full John Wick. (That the screenplay is from Wick scripter Derek Kolstad should be no surprise.) The result is a movie in which a mid-life crisis of masculinity is solved by violence—waves and waves of shootings and stabbings and all sorts of things to make a faceless, personless baddie’s body go splat. I’ll admit the action, staged by director Ilya Naishuller (whose previous actioner, the woozy POV-shot Hardcore Henry was repellently violent), takes on a passable jolt, and the dumb retribution logic plays out with some dopey spirit. But I couldn’t shake the fact that the whole amoral shape of the thing was like someone traded American Beauty’s portrait of male-pattern ennui’s sex fantasies for violence, then dropped the clumsy satire for overplayed needle drops and self-satisfied slow-mo. Odenkirk is smartly restrained and underplayed throughout, though. And the shoot outs and explosions and car wrecks have a stupid satisfaction to them. But the whole arc of the picture — better living through mass murder — leaves a nasty aftertaste.

Far better to see a movie that knows how deadly serious its pulp plotting is. I’d be loath to say a thriller as unremittingly dark and unsparing as Wrath of Man is a moral work, but it has a code and a perspective that understands there is no such thing as good violence or a righteous kill. It’s too stark and unflinching, lean and mean, to be anything but impressed by the emptiness with which it leaves every character involved. There’s something ominous to its undertow, crisp crime plotting that will be drug under by its poisonous grasp. Here men’s schemes are what opens that Pandora’s box. They’re pitiless; their crimes run cold; blood oozes and splatters like tar. It stars Jason Statham in one of his chilliest performances, his tight musculature crafted into a stone-faced determination. He’s a new hire at an armored truck company that has recently been targeted by a team of robbers who blocked off a road, blew out the side door, and gunned down the drivers. Statham is silently hyper-confident, keeps to himself, and seems to be way more talented than the job requires as the movie’s introductory passages draws him into his co-worker’s world of jargon and joshing. You can tell he’s up to something. As the movie steadily widens its scope, sidestepping to show us other groups of men, we see this armored truck depot is the hub of criss-crossing plots: two teams of thieves looking for a big score, a man-on-the-inside working to help one of them, some cops who may or may not be onto something. And Statham? He’s on his own, out for revenge. You can tell when he calmly, precisely guns down some potential robbers without breaking a sweat, and then follows it up with the faintest flicker of disappointment. These weren’t the thieves he was looking for. The movie’s unflinching grimness and deliberate forward motion matches Statham’s, as his vengeance works itself into mythical, or perhaps Old Testament, dimensions through the dark rumblings of fatalism, the taciturn brutality of its sparingly deployed concussive violence, the score full of low, slow strings and thunderously rolling drums.

The film untangles its deceptively knotty plot with razor-sharp simplicity and focused tension. Revelations drop into  a sturdy structure that thuds each new variable into place with equal parts inevitability and surprise. Moving backwards and forwards in time, and moving in different groups of dangerous men on a direct collision course with each other, the heat steadily builds to a boiling point, spilling over in a clever and tragic escalating climax. The way there finds in its long set-up and clockwork payoffs a merciless logic and calculated futility. We get the sense all of these guys need to take action in response to their circumstances (they were wronged, or greedy, or bored), but know deep down all this danger won’t get them much of anything in return. It’s a fallen neo-noir world past saving, but something must be done anyway. The big ensemble of enjoyable character actors (Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, and on and on) keep the personality on a low simmer, the kind of hard-bitten pulp dialogue that curlicues with just enough flair, a mixture of hollow macho posturing and gruff molasses-drip dialogues of heavy seriousness. The film matches this tone with its own self-seriousness: chapter headings, drawings of snakes and devils in the open credits, a well-deployed use of a gravely Johnny Cash lament in a violent montage, restraint in patient wide-shots and smartly withheld reveals. But that seriousness finds a good match in the mood and craft of the picture, which imbues what could be affectations with a level of tightly controlled artfulness that elevates what could in lesser hands devolve to mere shoot-‘em-ups. Here every shot counts, and hurts.

That it comes from writer-director Guy Ritchie marks potentially a new era in his filmmaking. After all, he began in the 90s as part of the post-Tarantino fast-talking genre movie crowd, with jumpy and jumbled crime pictures like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels that rattled chronologically and pictorially. Those early films of his are energetic and youthful, but also empty, callow contraptions. His exercises in style were then well-served as directorial eccentricities in massive Hollywood branded blockbusters — two Sherlock Holmes, a Man from UNCLE, a King Arthur, an Aladdin. He often enlivened what duller hands would’ve turned out perfunctorily, taking his quick-cut flashiness and scrappy chatter to glossy spectacles. With Wrath of Man, he’s come full circle with a sense of an aged master, older and wiser, confident in his narrative chops and control of tone. He entrusts a thick layer of menace to a talented cast and crew of ace craftspeople. Every shot is well-judged and clear. Every sequence is economical and thrilling. He rarely goes out of his way to accomplish in two shots what could be done in one. Thus it becomes an exercise in control, taking his interest in underdogs and rivalries, ambition and deception, fatalism and determination, and drawing them out in a mechanically impressive scrambled chronology told with an atypically heavy pace. It’s a two-hour crescendo of sustained suspense and dread, promising and delivering clever realizations and anyone-goes violence. It builds. It escalates and modulates. It finds new depths to dig as it wrestles with the darkness at the heart of these men’s plans, the way wrath animates yet hollows out everyone around it. Here’s a film that look on the evil men do — in so many forms — and feels sick from the weight it carries, before exploding outward in intense genre thrills.

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