By Chris Campo
I had no idea what I was getting into before seeing the new film from Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell, UPGRADE. I avoided all trailers, not because I was hyped (or my newly found rule of generally avoiding trailers), but because everything I had seen from UPGRADE looked like a poor man's sci-fi action (think 2012's Lockout). Hell, they even got discount Tom Hardy in the lead roll. However, on one rainy Monday I caught a matinee of Upgrade -- mostly because I admire the craft of Mr. Whannell, one of the men behind both Saw and Insidious -- and much to my surprise, this wasn't the cheap, corny action film I thought it would be. In fact, it was quite the upgrade.
We follow Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who, despite, living in a highly futuristic & automated world, likes to do the work himself. He's a mechanic. He still get's his hands dirty fixing up his beat up old car while others such as his wife (Melanie Vallejo) would rather head to work in a fancy, self driving car. However, after a brutal mugging leaves his innocent wife murdered and his body completely paralyzed, Grey must (literally) make friends with technology; Grey is offered an experimental implant that will use artificial intelligence to move his body, with Grey in full control. The A.I. dubbed "Stem" also acts as a voice in Grey's head, and once this voice informs Grey of potential suspects of his wife's murderers, Stem convinces Grey to give it full control over his body to become a bad-ass, vigilante hell bent on brutal, bloody revenge.
By the first action scene involving Stem using Grey's body as an ass-kicking-puppet of sorts, I was glued to the screen and was willing to let this film take me wherever it wanted. Getting there, however, can be a bit of a drag. The film surprisingly takes time setting up both its world and its characters, and while all of this is welcome, the film suffers a bit from first act blues. I do think a lot of the slow build up is necessary, and it is nice that we get a full understanding of our lead protagonist before he's a full on action hero, seeing him at his absolute lowest.
The core plot, however, is what gets pushed aside until the end of the first act. A lot of the building blocks of later revelations and some crucial information is blown past. The biggest issue I have with the film is that, unless I missed the line of dialogue explaining it, I have no idea how Grey is associated with the mastermind behind "Stem" in the first place. The leads sort of just show up at the man's house, we get some exposition, and then we move on. This left me a bit confused when this man (seemingly randomly) shows up to Grey's hospital and offers the procedure in the first place. Sure, we get more contexts in the film's climax, but in the moment, it really felt like lazy writing.
I digress; if you are seeing Upgrade to see it's chances in next year's Screenplay category in the Academy Awards, you are a fool. As I mentioned, the first real action scene in this film is incredible, and instantly got my attention, reassuring what type of film I was in for. UPGRADE is a grimy, irreverent, balls to the wall and unbelievably crowd-pleasing action film, and probably the most fun and inventive one since John Wick. Grey/Stem's first kill, nearly decapitating a thug with a knife, is so crunchy, unexpected and expertly shot and cut, that the audience in my screening didn't know whether to laugh or scream, the reaction was a bit of both.
The action in this film is so inventive, using a camera trick that locks onto and tracks specific movements within the frame. The first time it happened I was so utterly delighted. It's the type of experimental filmmaking the action genre needs. It gives every action scene this kinetic pace, so when the gory finishing blows arrive (and BOY do they) they act almost as a release of tension we the audience experiences watching the carnage ensue. The film also does not over do it, once the second act hits, it is paced so well that the four or five action set pieces we see are more memorable. Leigh Whannell got his start with inventive horror, and while I don't think this will jolt the action genre the way Saw did the horror genre, Whannell proves he is not a one trick pony.
Whannell not only directs this film, but he also wrote it. I shouldn’t expect TOO much from a story that, when really boiled down, we have seen a thousand time's before. Whannell differentiates this film with the world he creates around the basic plot. It's real goofball sci-fi, but it's never taken too seriously, and never handled too goofy either. It works. You can really tell how nuts Whannell went with the sci-fi aspect in the film's closing minutes. The final revelations are nuts, and so bold, they borderline on convoluted. But somehow, dammit, they absolutely stick the landing. The film closes with a finale so unsettling yet fun, it sent chills down my spine and a smile to my face. But be warned, I heard a lot of groans and confused comments by the moviegoers packing the auditorium with me.
I never have been huge on Mr. Logan Marshall-Green, even in Spider-Man Homecoming I found him stale and dry, but here, he hits his stride. He has fun with the role, but still knows when to take it seriously. He gives a great physical and emotional performance. A highlight is any time Stem takes over, because while Stem is using Grey's body to fight, Grey is reacting in amazement, shock and horror, It's great stuff. Unfortunately, a lot of the side cast has neither anything exciting to do or say, and actors doing a fine job don't particularly stand out. Especially evident in the lackluster villain character Fisk. played by Benedict Hardie.
You don't really see a film like UPGRADE unless you are just looking for a badass time at the movies, and UPGRADE delivers on that, and then some. Some of the concepts and set pieces are truly memorable and that is what sets this film apart from the pact. I mean the villains have shotguns for hands, and they load said shotguns via their biceps for heaven's sake! How can you not, at the very least, be supremely entertained by that? UPGRADE is one of those gems that is exactly the type of film it wants to be, and I really, really enjoyed it.
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