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In celebration of the non-action action star

Bob Odenkirk in 'Nobody'
Bob Odenkirk in 'Nobody' (Image credit: Universal Pictures)

One day and approximately several hundred Star Wars announcements ago, there was a trailer for a little film called Nobody. On the surface, Nobody is the prototypical release, combining a solid-but-unspectacular cast with a sorta-name director - Ilya Naishuller of Hardcore Henry fame – for audiences to latch onto. But what immediately gave Nobody its fifteen minutes of pre-Disney fame was its star.

This is no ordinary action movie. This is an action movie starring Bob freaking Odenkirk.

The comparisons to the John Wick franchise were obvious and immediate. Not only was the film produced by John Wick co-creator David Leitch – a fact the trailer helpfully points out about halfway through – but it also barters in the same fixer-gone-domestic formula that helped popularize that franchise. Like Keanu Reeves, Bob Odenkirk is positioned as “that nobody” whose bloodthirst and knack for violence surprises everyone who dares cross his path. The Nobody trailer even uses something coded as domestic – in this case, a kitty cat bracelet – as an absurd jumping off point for acts of truly astonishing violence.

But for all the overt similarities in John Wick and Nobody, one thing will forever separate the two films. Keanu Reeves is one of the most iconic action stars of his generation, a performer whose dedication to his craft had already been established in countless movies of the 1990s and 2000s. John Wick is a much a self-reflective commentary on his middle-aged star power as it is a true character study, and Leitch and co-director Chad Stahelski were wise to blur the lines between the actor and his character. They let Reeves do his shit and do it well.

Bob Odenkirk has no action history to draw back on. This is no Liam Neeson or Sylvester Stallone-esque return to the genre that helped make them famous. This is just an actor choosing to do an ultraviolent action movie. In casting Odenkirk as their action lead, the producers of Nobody are breaking with a longstanding tradition of action metatextuality, and probably for the better.

Studios do more than just bank on recognizable action stars in leading roles; they build entire projects around the connective tissues that form between their films. This is why Dwayne Johnson continues to perform wrestling moves during his fight scenes long after the end of his wrestling career. It is also why the driving force of the John Wick films is the unparalleled competence of Keanu Reeves as both fighter and gunslinger. The skills that action stars have – the fight choreography and styles that make them famous – become part of their onscreen persona. And they often become an integral part of the story.

Sometimes, Hollywood uses this power for good. When Tom Cruise scales the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, we are ever-aware of both performance and performer. Cruise has made his death-defying stunts such an integral part of his onscreen persona. It is impossible to separate the stunt from countless behind-the-scenes featurettes and talking heads about his commitment to his craft. So the narrative of Tom Cruise absorbs the franchise, existing both inside and outside the films simultaneously. We know he’s always going to do some utterly reckless (and cool as hell), and we’re fine if the rest of the movies just sorta wallpaper around that.

Sometimes, though, action icon celebrity can overwhelm the creative process. One of the best examples of this is Hobbes & Shaw, the 2019 Fast & Furious spinoff that attempted to offer equal screen time to Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. In a now-infamous Wall Street Journal feature, it was revealed that both Johnson and Statham demanded their handlers keep track of “number of punches” their character received to ensure that neither actor appears more dynamic onscreen. Sure, this may be the product of fame and ego in equal amounts, but it also makes sense. Who wants to see an action star lose a fight?

Over time, the weight of these decisions adds up, and what Nobody offers audiences is an action movie devoid of intertextual demands. It’s not just that Odenkirk is out there offering standout fight choreography at 58-years-old - though that is reason enough for celebration with any actor. It’s that Odenkirk is a blank slate, a performer whose lack of action bonafides allows him to (gasp) work in service of the narrative instead of the other way around. There are no other Odenkirk action movies to throw back to, and that makes his guy-next-door premise believable in a way that so many other action stars can never truly achieve (here’s looking at you, Schwarzenegger).

Whatever happens in Nobody will happen without the weight of expectations. This adds a dash of the unexpected around a genre that, by design, is often anything but. It also serves as a welcome reminder to studios that you needn’t always cast an action star to make an action movie. Movies can be more than just vehicles for skillsets, and even the most kick-ass stunts and fight choreography can get a little rote over time. Let’s see what happens when a balding character actor gets his turn in the spotlight instead.

And so it is that Bob Odenkirk – yes, Bob Odenkirk – has become Hollywood’s Athena, emerging from action-nothingness fully grown and prepped for war. In the months to come, we will undoubtedly be treated to countless interviews extolling Odenkirk’s rigorous training regime and willingness to learn. But Nobody remains the rare film that is willing to offer us top-notch action without a bankable action star to fall back on. It would not surprise me at all if this ends up making Naishuller’s film a surprise standout among its peers.