“You’ll need to be a little faster, Grey.”
With all major studios chasing the next big I.P. to turn into a limitless franchise, Blumhouse is cornering the market on small, genre-oriented films, and making a killing in the process. For their next trick, the shingle has turned to Leigh Whannell, who is no stranger to the pulpy fare that Blumhouse excels in–he wrote and appeared in several of the Saw movies and the entire Insidious series. In his new feature, Upgrade, Whannell aims to tackle the ubiquitous presence of technology, while preserving the riotous tone that one expects from a B-picture such as this. The sort of picture that has a bad guy kill another man by sneezing. Yes, you read that correctly. Leigh Whannell knows what audiences want out of Upgrade, and he’ll give it to them with both barrels.
In a world where tech can do everything for you, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a hands-on kind of guy. He drives a muscle car, he listens to vinyl records, and he rags on his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) for being a tech executive. His insistence on being a Luddite is given ample cause when a deficiency in their autonomous vehicle leaves Trace and his wife in a bad part of town. A gang’s beating leaves Trace a quadriplegic and his wife dead. Yes, you also read that correctly, one more vengeance-themed actioner has killed off the wife to give the husband a tragic backstory. Fridging the wife is so common that audiences won’t even bat an eye, but was this specific choice necessary? At least in Deadpool, Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa got to establish herself. I couldn’t even remember what the name for Vallejo’s character was before she was killed. Trace’s backstory didn’t require a dead wife; he could just as easily be inclined to take revenge on a group of augmented gangsters for crippling him. It’s a narrative device that’s grown tiresome over the years, but not the last you’ll see of them in the film.
Trace faces a decision upon waking up: Take an offer from sleazy billionaire Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) to implant A.I. into his body, or stay paralyzed forever. This eponymous upgrade is Trace’s only hope for revenge, so he reluctantly takes it. Once the experimental chip implant (called STEM) takes hold, Trace is back in business, and on the hunt for his wife’s killers. This latest season of Black Mirror has told the many horrors of sharing a body with other consciouses at play, but Trace has little to complain about. Trace makes mincemeat of his opponents with his new OS, and Logan Marshall-Green has an absolute blast conveying the surreal mix of wonder and disgust of his newfound abilities. Adding to the novelty of these fights is a bit of technical trickery, where Whannell fixes the camera to Trace in the frame while still following his movements through the shot. It’s a staple of the film, but also a highlight of the discrepancy between the effort put into the aesthetics and the script.
When Upgrade gets out of its own way, it’s the type of genre exercise that rocks midnight showings, yet a perfunctory narrative keeps the film from reaching stratospheric heights. Once the first 20 minutes are through, however, the film’s twin strengths in Marshall-Green’s action/comedy chops and Whannell’s direction get to shine… right before another inert subplot gets prominent screen time. An underused Betty Gabriel hot on Trace’s trail for murder is great if they’re going to remake The Fugitive, otherwise, just get back to the mayhem. There are many expertly choreographed fight scenes to be had between Marshall-Green and cybernetically enhanced mercenaries with guns embedded into their arms.
There are times when Upgrade aspires to Black Mirror-level commentary, even if everything onscreen rejects it. Whannell gives ample time to critiquing the dependency that humans have lent to our artificially created counterparts, but little of it stands up to scrutiny. Still, the writer/director knows how to visualize the hell out of this sci-fi/body-horror/action amalgamation. And, better yet, he knows how to bail before the 95-minute mark.