Gaming

‘Upgrade’ Enhances an Old Formula With Video Game Camerawork and ‘Terminator’ Efficiency

I didn’t have to check the runtime on IMDb to know Upgrade comes in at right around a sizzling 90 minutes (okay, but I did check, and it’s 95 minutes). Upgrade isn’t sticking around long enough to build out a franchise or prognosticate on the dangers of technology. Instead, there’s a pleasing spareness to Upgrade and how it refuses to expand beyond its straightforward fusion of Robocop and Deathwish.

Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation, Spider-Man: Homecoming) plays Grey Trace, an analog luddite in a digital world, fixing up muscle cars while his wife (Melanie Vallejo) works for a nonspecific tech behemoth. She’ll be dead before you get the chance to know her. After delivering a car to Eron, a blonde tech magnate recently escaped from an anime, Grey and his wife are ambushed by anonymous goons. The assault leaves him quadriplegic and thirsty for cinematic vengeance, so Grey agrees to guinea pig for Eron’s revolutionary new computer chip, STEM, which is implanted atop his spinal cord.

It’s time to kill a lot of people, all while dodging the police, solely embodied in Cortez (Betty Gabriel, Get Out), who’s dogged but made narratively impotent by the most useless and incompetent surveillance state in cyberpunk history.

That’s the Upgrade basics. Where it begins to build some appeal is in its well-choreographed action sequences and the functional storytelling relationship between Grey and the talking, body-steering STEM. Keeping a tight leash on its body-enhancing world, Upgrade uses STEM for mildly amusing banter, but mostly as a referee, letting Grey (and us) in on the various rules of the game. STEM can’t read minds, so Grey has to speak aloud to the chip, but it can shut off his pain receptors, fight for him and record environmental details, essentially putting the investigation component of Upgrade’s revenge plot on autodrive.

In addition to fast and tight fights, full of flying limbs and mercifully free of slow-mo or speed ramping, writer-director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) effectively recreates video game sensations, with a default perspective subjectively locked to Grey, as if he were Kratos in God of War . Rather than bobbing inside the environment, Grey’s fight scenes attach to his body, the environment quaking and spinning around him. Marshall-Green’s physical performance, his movements blocky and inhumanly efficient as his face gasps in horror at what his body is doing, helps get the point across. It’s really well done, with none of the distorted, locked-in quality of more gimmicky efforts like Hardcore Henry.

 

via GIPHY

 

The fights are helped by Whannell’s obvious affection for exploitation staples, including a handful of creative and generous gore shots (most of which appear in the red-band trailer, unfortunately). The first fight, one-on-one in a grubby and decrepit living room, aligns the movie’s approach to action more with Rolling Thunder and Vigilante than your average sci-fi thriller. And while Grey rarely feels challenged, even against a similarly enhanced villain, the action has a sweaty brutality that covers for the lack of tension.

Most of the downsides—thin plot, thin characters—are a natural consequence of what keeps Upgrade so digestible. The dark, tech-soaked future captures the dynamic well. There’s absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before, from surveillance drones to dreadlocked goofballs squatting in abandoned warehouses tethered to VR headsets, but because Upgrade never acts too impressed with itself, never wastes time explaining well-worn concepts it’s smart enough to know you know, the generic becomes effective and streamlined. This makes Upgrade nearly the opposite of Blade Runner 2049, which spends its runtime in awe at the promise and peril of its imagined future. Instead, the Upgrade future, with its nagging robot assistants and text message-laden coffee tables, is effectively dystopian precisely because it’s a little underwhelming (except those gun hands, woo-ee).

Watching Upgrade is like putting on one of those unmarketed Netflix Originals (like, say, The Titan) and finding a pleasant surprise—something that never actually happens on Netflix. It may not innovate in plot, or offer anything more thought-provoking than what’s necessary to arrive at the next fight, but by merging Deus Ex cyberpunk, third-person action games and the dirty old bones of 70s exploitation, Upgrade earns installation in your memory core.

Upgrade will be released in theaters June 1.

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