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He Knows Kung Fu

"Upgrade" punches for the stars

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I give you Tom Hardly...totally going for it. - PARAMOUNT PICTURES
  • Paramount Pictures
  • I give you Tom Hardly...totally going for it.

"Upgrade" has a great, if not entirely original, concept. It's the future and there are automatically driven cars, computer monitors on every living room table and drones tracking criminal activity, flying through the night sky. The terribly named Grey Trace is a mechanic who hates the future he's living in. He works on classic cars, has no bio-organic devices in his body and shuns technology.

When he's crippled by a group of mercenaries and his wife is murdered, Trace wants nothing more than to help the police find her killers and then end his own life. Instead, through a contrived set of circumstances, a brilliant tech innovator implants a cutting edge gadget called STEM into his spine, not only allowing him to walk again, but also to be a master of kung fu and shooting people in the face.

"Upgrade" has a ton of big ideas about futurism and artificial intelligence, but it's mostly content to be a boiler-plate revenge tale along the lines of "Death Wish" or "The Crow." STEM speaks directly into Trace's ear canal, giving the film a buddy-cop vibe that keeps it from sinking into the mire of genre predictability.

Honestly, "Upgrade" features so many truly innovative action sequences and gore effects that it's almost a genre classic—but it's held back by the lead performance of Logan Marshall-Green. He looks almost exactly like Tom Hardy, but has nowhere near the ability to convey subtext with his eyes and face. I dub him Tom Hardly.

Marshall-Green has a few great moments (especially with the physicality of the action sequences), but whenever he tries to convey his loss or hopelessness, he seems a little flat. If I was completely sold on what I'm sure was a very difficult performance, then I would have been emotionally invested in the movie instead of just waiting for him to beat someone else to death. It's still great fun to see a non-violent man instantly know martial arts and become a killing machine, but if it carried the weight of "Blade Runner" or even "RoboCop," it could have really been something special.

Director Leigh Whannell is mostly known as the guy who writes most of James Wan's movies, including "Saw" and "Insidious," but really manages to turn "Upgrade" into a calling card for his future as a filmmaker. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets attached to a huge action franchise (something in the Marvel Universe, maybe?) just as Wan did when he went from the second "Insidious" movie to "Furious 7."

What's really remarkable about "Upgrade" is that Whannell managed to make a movie with a $5 million budget look like something made for around $20 million. Every dime is onscreen and he creates a very believable near-futuristic world that almost matches movies made for 10 times its budget. Whannell is going to be huge in the director's chair and this will be the movie that puts him there.

"Upgrade" is schlock and proud of it. The film embraces its B-movie roots and promises nothing more than a lightning fast 90 minutes at the movies. The fantastic ending sets up a sequel—one that could easily be better than the original. Hopefully, Whannell has some good ideas, because we only scratched the surface of his world with "Upgrade" and I want to see where all this weirdness goes.

Upgrade
Dir. Leigh Whannell
Grade: B
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX

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