Director: Tom Harper
Cast: Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Jing Lusi, Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, Paul Ready, Jon Kortajarena, Glenn Close, BD Wong, Mark Ivanir
Running Time: 122 min.
By Paul Bramhall
During the 2010’s when Netflix began to directly produce movies, being associated with the platform was considered an exciting prospect. With the appeal of being able to match the budgets of the big studios, but not be constrained by the limitations imposed by a traditional studio, the steaming giant offered a level of creative freedom to some of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. In 2017 Bong Joon-ho helmed the Netflix backed Okja, and espoused in interviews how he basically had carte blanche to make the movie how he wanted, something that would have been impossible in any other circumstances. In 2019 Martin Scorsese directed The Irishman and had similar high praise, reuniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995. In short, Netflix seemed be branding itself as a platform where some of the biggest names in cinema could have full control to bring their visions to the screen, even if it was the small one.
However the dawn of the 2020’s brought with it a deadly combination. Rapid advances in the way algorithms are leveraged started to dictate what kind of content got greenlight, while the COVID-19 pandemic (which took up most of 2020 and 2021) led to a surge of subscribers, all of whom needed more and more new content to survive the gruelling lockdowns. The movies Netflix produced started to grow en masse, but the quality didn’t match that growth, instead heading in the opposite direction. Whereas just a few short years before filmmakers were praising the full creative freedom they had, almost overnight we transitioned into a world were the type of productions likely to get greenlit were based purely on the data. What was the completion rate (translated: how many viewers watched to the end)? What are the similarities for those that got switched off after less than a minute? Who brings in an audience?
This background is worth mentioning, as the result of it has born the modern-day streaming equivalent of the DTV action cheapie. Strip them down, and the likes of My Sweet Girl, Interceptor, and The Mother all follow the same basic template, and joining them in 2023 is Heart of Stone. Netflix obviously have a lot of confident in their latest, since they announced it as the first instalment in what’s intended to be a female driven Mission: Impossible-esque franchise, and its star is Gal Gadot. An actress who’s already showing signs of becoming a Netflix regular outside of her appearances as Wonder Woman in the DC Universe (see 2021’s lamentable Red Notice which, probably thanks to those pesky completion rates, already has a sequel in production), the production is actually a passion project of hers and her producer husband Jaron Varsano.
In an interview Gadot expressed her love for action movies like the 007 and Die Hard franchises, going on to say, “I was like, ‘Wait a second, men go to see women-led action films too. We can make more, so let’s do it.’” To her credit, that’s exactly what she’s done, and goodwill is already earned just through the fact that she’s not playing an assassin. Instead she’s part of a secret organisation of special agents called the Charter, whose sole directive is to preserve human life (or as one character puts it, “When governments fail, the only thing left is the Charter.”). Gadot has been implanted in the UK’s MI6, where her colleagues believe she’s a hacker with zero field experience, meaning she must be ever vigilant about hiding the fact she’s probably more deadly than the trio she works with combined. What’s more difficult to hide, is the fact that Heart of Stone is a bad movie. In fact it’s not just bad, it’s awful.
Fifty years from now, when scholars look back on this era of filmmaking and try to pinpoint the one movie which was probably made with substantial assistance from AI, then it’s likely it’ll be Heart of Stone used as the example. Allegedly helmed by Tom Harper (The Aeronauts), a director who’s mainly worked in the TV arena, the whole thing is a bland and soulless affair, and one which makes it easy to question if Gal Gadot is really capable of carrying a movie outside of wearing the Wonder Woman suit. Traversing the plot with a Steven Seagal like expression of mild indifference, Gadot struggles to inject life into an admittedly clunky script, all the more surprising since it’s partly penned by Greg Rucka, who did a much better job scripting the screen adaptation of his own comic The Old Guard in 2020.
At one point Gadot and her trio of MI6 buddies are caught up in a vehicular chase with the bad guys, with one of them yelling “Three vehicles! Lots of guns!” In what can be considered a high point for Heart of Stone’s attempts at comedy, Gadot quips back, “Yeah, I can tell by the bullets.” Played by Jamie Dornan (the Fifty Shades… Trilogy), Paul Ready (The Dig), and Jing Lusi (Crazy Rich Asians), the trio do their best with some truly painful material, which includes breaking out into a spontaneous dance in their apartment safehouse before undertaking the next mission. The same scene starts with Ready sending Gadot a link to a pink dollhouse, a present he’s considering buying for his niece’s birthday that he wants to get her opinion on. It’s during moments like these when you could be mistaken for watching a modern-day reboot of The Waltons as opposed to the franchise starting spy thriller it’s supposed to be.
The plot itself is an almost identical rehash of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, with The Charter using a highly advanced AI program called the Heart (and Gadot’s character name is Rachel Stone – now you know where the inspired title comes from) that’s able to predict practically everything. A hacker from India played by Alia Bhatt (RRR) wants to steal the Heart, intending to use its capabilities to reveal the shady organisation responsible for the loss of her parents, one that she believes is using humans to experiment on. Teaming up with another character who feels wronged by the Charter and is seeking revenge, it’s not a spoiler to say that they do indeed get their hands on the Heart, and events transpire in such a way that it’s left to Gadot to take them on alone and bring back the program to the side who use it for good.
Unlike the Entity of the most recent Mission: Impossible outings, the Heart never really feels like much of a threat. It’s portrayed more like a throwback to 2002’s Minority Report, with an annoying member of the Charter, played by Matthias Schweighöfer (Oppenheimer), cast solely to stand in the middle of a room and randomly point his fingers and flay his arms at 3D data visualisations that swirl all around him. The action is equally uninspired, including a ridiculously green screened fight on top of a hydrogen filled zeppelin where the Heart is stored, ending in a skydiving scene lifted straight from 2021’s Black Widow. It’s clear that Harper has zero understanding of how to shoot action, with any brief fights that break out incomprehensibly filmed through a combination of jittery camera work, even worse framing, and scattershot editing which makes what’s happening onscreen practically unfathomable.
Worse still, since we’re living in an era of the green screen action cheapie, the problem of there being no sense of scale to the action sequences is perhaps as big of an issue here as it’s ever been. The zeppelin scene should by all accounts be the action highlight, but as it is proceedings end on a whimper, with Gadot engaged in the most unremarkable of fights to finish things off. The irony being that the physicality of the fight was probably more gruelling than the green screen work, but translated onscreen anything that involves jumping off an exploding zeppelin should theoretically be more exciting than a plainly executed fight scene. However when the former can be created digitally, the fact that the element of risk by doing it for real is also removed inevitably also sneaks its way onto what ends up onscreen, ultimately looking like exactly what it is – an actress running away from a superimposed explosion that isn’t really there.
It would be easy to continue ranting about Heart of Stone all day – from the increasingly lengthy exposition dumps that serve little to no purpose, to one of the laziest soundtracks ever committed to film, to making every country it globe hops around look completely unremarkable. At one point even a respected actress like Glenn Close turns up, adding an extra surreal feel to proceedings (or was it just her digital likeness?). But to do so would mean it probably took me longer to write this review than whatever AI program took to put this sorry excuse for a movie together. At one point a character says, “Just follow the numbers”, a concise summary of Netflix’s approach to creating movies in 2023. The ultimate irony? I contributed to the completion rate for Heart of Stone, so in all likelihood it probably will be the franchise starter it aims to be. See you at the same time and same place in 2024 for Heart of Stone 2.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 2/10