NB: there are spoilers for events in the second quarter of Nobody that not everybody might want to know in advance. For the record, I have left many splendid surprises in the second and third acts not merely un-discussed, but not even alluded to.

The action thriller Nobody is, in the most literal sense, incoherent. I do not mean by this "it was confusing and I didn't understand it". I mean, "it does not cohere". The separate parts of the film do not create a unified whole. It spends its first act doing one thing  and its second act doing something entirely different - not an incompatible thing, though writer Derek Kolstad does not put any effort into making them compatible, possibly having missed the problem.

So let's start with the first act. We get one of those "start at the other end and flash back to the start" things, where a very battered and bloody Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) is being interrogated by two cops. When asked who he is, he wearily responds "I'm [smash cut to the title card]", very cutely, probably too cutely. And the too-cuteness keeps it up for a montage of just who Hutch is: an emasculated loser with a crappy middle-management job at his father-in-law's custom car shop, an inability to keep up with his kids' basic needs, and a successful realtor wife, Becca (Connie Nielsen), whose beaming face is plastered on the bus shelter where he does pull-ups while waiting for his ride into work every day; the suggestion is that their marital status consists largely of passive-aggressive reminders from her when he forgets to take the trash out. The grinding monotony of Hutch's life is presented in a very-cute-too-cute montage that shows little clips from his Monday-Friday routine for multiple weeks, using not just the same events but the exact same footage, the better to suggest the blind repetition of his world.

And then one day, the house gets broken into: Hutch and his son Blake (Gage Monroe) get the drop on the robbers, but Hutch holds back from clocking one of them in the head with a golf club, and they leave, a little panicked and more confused. Everyone around Hutch, from the cop who takes his story to his employer/father-in-law Eddie (Michael Ironside) and gun-hungry brother-in-law Charlie (Billy MacLellan), patronisingly suggest that this was a sign of unmanly weakness, and when his daughter Abby (Paisley Cadorath), finds that a precious knickknack has gone missing, he completely snaps and decides to go find the robbers and get his revenge. He finds them all right - finds that they're dirt-poor with a hungry baby. And so he leaves in a bloody-minded huff, ending up on a bus with five drunk gangsters and one petrified young woman. And this looks to be an extremely good opportunity for him to work off some of his aggression.

I said that I was going to be spoiling the second act, but as I think about it, we already get pretty clear-cut evidence of the spoiler in the first act. Anyway, the hook here is, what if a random everyday fella got so pissed off that he snapped and started murdering the bad people? Call it what it is, a reactionary paean to a beta male finding his alpha soul, but at the same time, tell me that there's a way to make a revenge thriller that isn't reactionary and I'll consider that you've lost your mind. Regardless, it's a thing, and Hutch is a guy, and there's an arc, except that we learn almost immediately after the bus scene that he's a crazy, highly-trained ex-assassin for the U.S. government who decided to go straight when he fell in love with his now-estranged wife. And here I'll mention that Kolstad is also the screenwriter of John Wick and its sequels, and the degree to which Nobody is just a re-skinned John Wick is so unapologetically shameless that it's frankly rather exciting and bold.

So what's the problem? Simply that what we learn about Hutch means that the first act makes no sense at all. Kolstad is obviously moving things around to hide his reveal, which isn't even much of a reveal at that - he already has a mysterious scary tattoo and a mysterious friend named Harry (RZA) who communicates solely over radio and gives Hutch advice that only one ex-killer would give to another ex-killer. But still, we're getting all of that business about a henpecked beta male who snaps and whatever, which is simply a different character arc than "peerless killer has tried to repress his murderous instinct but eventually the desire to kill will out". To his great credit, Odenkirk plays it such that we can look back over his performance and see all of that, but Kolstad doesn't write it that way and Ilya Naishuller doesn't direct it that way, and so instead of a first act that tricks us, we get a first act that outright lies to us.

I bring this up and spoil the reveal and all because the simple fact is that Nobody gets a hell of a lot better the instant it commits to "Hutch is just John Wick with the serial numbers removed" and stops pretending to be "any suburban husband and father could become this man, under sufficient pressure". Because that's when the film's plot snaps into focus, after way too much dithering. The first act is a fucking mess, to be blunt. "He looks for the robbers but they are actually sympathetic poor people so he gets in a funk and jumps at the chance to beat up some random gangsters" is hideously convoluted storytelling, especially given that the film doesn't really come alive until he starts beating up the gangsters, one of whom turns out to be the erstwhile brother of a powerful Russian crime boss named Yulian Kuznetsov (Alexey Serebryakov), and the second and third acts are just the John Wickian war between Hutch and Yulian's increasingly dwindling armies. So why not just get us there, without all the narrative three-card Monte? It doesn't matter, we got the Nobody we got, but the Nobody we got is just horribly-written, horribly enough to get in the way of its extremely enviable strengths.

I'll get to the strengths momentarily, because I have a little bit more to complain about with the incoherence. The first act being a kludge that tries to get us to the second act in the most ungainly, ugly way possible is one thing, but it's also a stylistic hodgepodge: the opening scene with the cops in the interrogation room is arch in its planimetric visuals like nothing else in the film, and then the "every day is boring" montage is doing quick, punchy, things that are like nothing else in the film; when we meet Yulian, the word "YULIAN" flashes up in letters that take up the whole frame, something that never happens for any other character, and he enters his Evil Mafia Dance Club in a Scorsese-eseque long take that we get only the one off, and the actions in it are perfectly tied to music in a fun, hyper-stylised way that nothing else in the film does... It's basically just a grab bag of whatever Naishuller thought would be coolest for that particular moment, apparently, and nothing ever builds or starts to take a shape. It's just stuff, randomly burping its way across the screen.

All of this is on the negative side. On the positive side, and it is unbelievable positive, this film has fucking phenomenal action setpieces. Odenkirk is a very unusual choice to anchor this kind of taciturn badass material - that is of course exactly the point - but his deadpan, honed in a great comic career, turns out to work extremely well for merciless nihilistic action hero material as well. I don't know if it's a "good performance", but it's an impeccable bit of smart casting.

As for the action itself, Nobody has one damn-near-perfect fight scene in that bus sequence, an unspeakably ugly, violent clattering of crude choreography in which the characters simply slug at each other artlessly, with the cutting working perfectly to help the blows land harder. Far from an impervious superman, Hutch gets, stabbed, punched, shoved into broken glass, and with each wound, he moves slower and stiffer, as do his opponents; and the slower they get, the more crude and bestial their fight becomes. In later fights, we see people take bullets and collapse, we see them roughly scratch with their mangled hands, we see them drag their weary bodies around. None of it matches the bus scene (which, on top of everything else, has the benefit that movie fistfights in uncomfortably closer quarters are basically always better than movie fistfights anywhere else), but that's an awfully high bar to clear, and the film has no bad action setpieces at all, only good, very good, and excellent ones. This is presented with no excessive style - clearly showing us what's happening and making sure that the right characters stay roughly in the center of the frame is pretty much at the outer limit of Naishuller's aesthetic program - but there's a sense in which the blandness both fits the film's themes and gives a vulgar realism to the already brutal violence that makes the scenes feel even more potent, by virtue of how aggressively real-world they feel.

So here we have the dilemma: on the one hand, I more than slightly hated the storytelling in the first act, and even at its best, the script for Nobody never rises above the purest cliché; on the other hand, I want to cut out the action scenes and hang them in a museum. I concede that the three-star rating I have offered the film is the coward's way out of having to make a decision; the impressively hard-hitting violence is too good to dismiss the film entirely, but the script is too dodgy to feel like it's an easy recommendation for anybody for whom the phrase "unspeakably ugly, violent clattering" doesn't feel like an instant positive. Ah well, Nobody isn't perfect.