By Dwight Brown
NNPA News Wire Film Critic
From the looks of it, he’s a weak-willed working-class man. A victim of routine and routinely disrespected—by his wife. Everybody thinks he’s wimp. Everyone dumps on him. Is that all there is?
That very deceptive setup is the brainchild of Bob Odenkirk, the lead actor in the very twisted series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. His premise was developed into an off-kilter script by screenwriter Derek Kolstad, known for the rhapsodically violent John Wick movies. Their demented notions are splattered on the screen, in torrents of blood, by Russian-born and London-raised director Ilya Naishuller, who won a Toronto Film Festival People’s Choice Award for Best Midnight Madness Movie for his film Hardcore Henry. Those are the filmmakers and that’s their creed. Just so you know what you signed up for.
Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) has been hiding in plain sight as a subservient suburban family man. His wife Becca (Connie Nielsen, Wonder Woman) carries his testicles in her Dooney & Bourke purse. They barely speak. A pillow divides their bed when they sleep. Every morning she chides him for failing to get the garbage can to the sanitation truck on time. She belittles him in front of their teenage son and little daughter and is unmoved when he confronts her callousness with his deepest feelings and regrets: “We haven’t had sex in months. We haven’t made love in years.”
The clearest indication of his passiveness is the night burglars invade his home and one of them punches his son in the face. Hutch averts more violence by letting themes cape. Is a dad who won’t fight for his family really a dad? A lion? Areal man?
Hutch may grovel on the outside, but on the inside he is a heartless killer. A former international assassin. A beast. His choice not to fight the night of the home invasion haunts him. Now he’s looking to blow off steam. He finds the brawl of his dreams on a public bus as he confronts young Russian thugs who menace a female passenger. When the confrontation is over, he leaves behind a trail of maimed bodies. One of the victims is the young brother of an evil Russian crime lord named Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov, Leviathan), who loves Karaoke nights and sharkskin suits. The gangster and his henchmen come after Hutch and his family. It’s on!
Streaming fans who have watched Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul know that Odenkirk can project the persona of a grimy, sociopathic and pathological liar quite well. Here, he goes coldly about his business as a killing machine on autopilot. Passion seeps in occasionally but tears, happiness and overt anger are not in his DNA. He may look like a middle-aged dude who couldn’t beat up a sixth grader, but when he gets his killer groove on, damn. Car chases, bombings, impalements and broken jaws ensue.
Kolstad’s script hits on family values, revenge elements, domestic espionage and financial improprieties. The dialogue is juicy. Says Hutch as he is about to kick butt: “I hope those ass – like hospital food.” The characters are three-dimensional in an action/crime/thriller, which only requires two dimensions. The unpredictable plot line keeps viewers guessing and sustains momentum for 92 minutes. His writing only stumbles when Hutch decides to share his bio/history with some bloodied assailants who are sitting on his couch and about to die. It’s boring. Genre fans don’t need fancy explanations and elaborate backstairs. Just throw the firepower at ‘em and shut up.
Naishuller’s work has no wrinkles. His action scenes are balletic, graphic and vicious in a very Chad Stahelski (John Wick) kind of way. Both directors have similar tastes in kicks, bullets and punches and they respect these main attractions; similar to Sam Peckinpah’s love for carnage in films like Straw Dogs. It also helps that Naishuller cut his teeth on music videos and commercials. He’s very aware of the visual surroundings, the power of first-person movement and provocative imagery.
Attaching the right writer and director helped actor and producer Bob Odenkirk get a monkey off his back. Once upon a time, his home was robbed with this family inside and he didn’t confront the crooks. When the ordeal was over a cop fatefully said to him: “You did the right thing. It’s not what I would have done, but you did the right thing.” That questioning of his primal instincts as the man of the family stuck in Odenkirk’s craw long enough for him to pull this revenge film together and reimagine himself as the Charles Bronson of his cul de sac.
Connie Nielsen more than holds her own in a flick that is really a men’s night out. Colin Salmon as an influencer called The Barber is pleasantly stylish. Araya Mengesha (Jean of the Joneses) is fluent in Russian as Yulian’s chief henchman. With RZA (Kill Bill: Vol. 1) as his brother and Christopher Lloyd as his father, Odenkirk takes the movieto a very cathartic finale.
David Buckley’s (Jason Bourne) musical score coupled with a playlist of Louis Armstrong, Andy Williams and Nina Simone standards is a soothing and welcomed contrast to the mayhem. The bleak lighting and graphic action are perfectly captured by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar). He’s shooting scenes in suburban homes, factory warehouses and nightclubs built by production designer Roger Fires (Deadpool 2), with props by set decorator Sara McCudden and color choices by art director Khali Wenaus. It isn’t always easy to balance blue collar clothes with shiny nightclub attire, but costume designer Patricia J. Henderson gets it right. While the pacing, by editors Evan Schiff (John Wick: Chapter 2) and William Yeh (The Punisher), is just frantic enough.
Don’t underestimate Odenkirk or his alter ego Hutch. Not like the young Russian thug on the bus did when he said: “What are you still doing here old man?” Said the dweeby-looking geezer, as interpretated by Odenkirk: “I’m going to f— you up!”
In theaters now and eventually on DVD and streaming services.