The 355 (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Serviceable actioner but proof that if you don’t have a star big enough to front  a shoot-‘em-up then sticking in another three – or four – actresses of equal, middling, or up-and-coming, status won’t do the trick, not if the characters lack the originality of a Bourne or Bryan Mills (Taken, 2008). There’s plenty of bang for your buck, but the story hangs on the old trope of an electronic device that can blackout the world.

I am not sure why Jessica Chastain has never become a bigger box office star. She certainly has the kudos – two Oscar nominationss – and is not shy of taking on difficult subjects (Miss Sloane, 2016) and she’s certainly enjoyed the occasionally leg-up from a series (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, 2015; It Chapter Two, 2019) to boost her box office credentials. But her last venture into the action arena (Ava, 2020) was a box office flop, though possibly you could put the blame on the pandemic. By my count she has been the top-billed star (excluding her X-Men appearance) in her last eight pictures and none have been a hit.

Her presence in the credits would encourage me to stump up my money at the box office but apparently I am in the minority. I could say the same about Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers, 2021), the second biggest star here, and while she certainly retains top-billed status in her native Spain, otherwise she is occasionally a female lead but more likely a supporting player.

If I had been putting my money on anyone to take the action box office by storm it would be Diane Kruger who has the meanest stare this side of Lee Van Cleef. But she’s gone down this route to no commercial response before in The Operative (2019) and The Infiltrator (2016), neither fulfilling the promise she showed in Liam Neeson crackerjack Unknown (2011). Bingbing Fan, (Cell Phone 2, 2019) another X-Men alumni, has only recently achieved box office success, but in limited markets. Mexican Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o – here billed fourth and sporting a British accent – may well have the biggest fan base of the lot having clocked up appearances in three Star Wars pictures, taken top billing in Us (209) and third billing in Black Panther (2018).

But back to our story. On the run from the C.I.A. Mace (Jessica Chastain) teams up with Marie (Diane Kruger), a loner working for the German secret service, and Khadjiah (Lupito Nyong-o), a digital wizard formerly of the British secret service. Bing, who turns up later, represents the Chinese good guys. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is the rank outsider, a therapist just caught up in the shenanigans. The action rattles through Paris en route to Marrakesh before a final stop in Shanghai. As you might expect, traitors lurk in various corners.

There are plenty shootouts and opportunities for the team to show off their hand-to-hand skills, but the action is slowed down by soap opera, having to spell out all the backstories of the principals, only one of whom, Marie, has anything worth listening to. Far be it for me to complain about too much emotion, but it took us over a dozen movies to learn anything significant about James Bond’s past, Bourne had no idea who he was, and at the other end of the scale Bryan Mills was so emotionally driven from the outset it formed the film’s core. Here, emotional quandary pops up when convenient. A bit of mystery would have helped more and cut a good 15 minutes off an overlong playing time.

As to the title, that is the only thing that is kept hidden to the end and when the revelation is made you realize it won’t mean a damn thing to the vast majority of the audience. As an origin story, I doubt the current box office receipts are sufficient to spawn future episodes. Which is a shame because having dumped all the emotional baggage in this picture, the characters could have focused more straightforwardly on action and story in the next.

Nobody (2021) ****

Blistering stylish thriller in the Taken (2008) / John Wick (2014) tradition sees former secret service badass Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) trying to live a normal suburban life with wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) and two kids while working as a nerdy book-keeper in a small factory, the kind, should the need arise and with the right skill set, that can be turned into a fortress.  

Devised by John Wick writer Derek Kolstad, this is a more realistic twist on the sub-genre he helped create. Where John Wick and indeed Bryan Mills (Taken) tend to often escape pretty unscathed from violent episodes, Hutch is beaten black and blue. But like John Wick he wants to keep the past buried. And he would do except he gets mixed up with two inept burglars and from that encounter segues into a confrontation with the Russian mob, the head of which Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a candidate for the all-time gangster hall of fame as well as the oddball hall of fame since he fancies himself as a nightclub singer.  

Interestingly, it’s clear that living the boring life is guaranteed to turn your marriage stale and that relationship only recovers when Hutch gets his mojo back. Unusually, too, Hutch spends a good deal of his time trying to make or keep the peace, preferring compromise to a bullet tsunami. But you know what these Russians are like!

Like John Wick, we enter a completely new world of assassins and their codes and the way they operate – attacking a man in his own home a mortal sin – and Hutch can call on a bundle of characters who know their way around, including his father David (Christopher Lloyd) and unspecified relative Harry (RZA) not to mention a mixture of hard-asses like Eddie (Michael Ironside) and upper-class Brit with the usual unusual moniker in this case The Barber (Colin Salmon).

In his sophomore outing Russian director Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry, 2015), while delivering a sufficient quota of fisticuffs and shootouts, brings a certain flair to the proceedings, Hutch as reliant on whatever pieces of metal prove handy as well as the normal selection of firearms and a more extensive supply of weaponry, committing violence to the unlikely accompaniment of classics from the American musicals songbook like “The Impossible Dream” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Naishuller has gathered a wonderfully eclectic cast with Connie Nielsen sprung back to leading lady status after bit parts in Wonder Woman (2017) and Justice League (2017). As if to remind myself of the emotional quality she brings to the movies, I happened to see her on the same day in a big-screen revival of Gladiator (2000) – part of my weekly cinematic triple bill. And you’re gonna love the reincarnation of Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, 1985), probably the only shotgun-toting inhabitant of an old folks home, off the big screen since 2018 and really without a decent movie role in nearly a decade.  

If you only know Bob Odenkirk from playing sleazeball lawyer Jimmy McGill in the television series Breaking Bad (2009-2013) and its offshoot Better Call Saul (2015-2021) and you wondered how he was ever going to break away from that typecasting, here’s the answer in spades. This is such a transformation you would forget he was ever McGill.

Nobody didn’t exactly hit the ground running when it was released in the U.S. in March during the pandemic but it will gradually build up a following on streaming and DVD and it’s almost certainly going to turn into a series. Remember, the first John Wick didn’t pack the commercial punch of the sequel. But once the word gets round, Nobody will attract a healthy fanbase.

Don’t miss this – highly recommended.

Not sure when the DVD is out but if you miss it in the cinema, you can get your order in now.

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