Monday, 3 September 2018
It's been a while since I've wanted to jump up during a film and shout "FUCK YES!!!" at the cinema screen. I've only actually done it once, during James Braddock's comeback in Cinderella Man but that's a long time ago now and I still cringe thinking about it. Seeing Upgrade in the cinema on Friday made that old feeling came back. Thankfully I managed to not make an ape out of myself this time but I love when a film can have that effect on me. Upgrade mightn't be great but jesus it's great fun at times. Leigh Whannell is best known as the writer of numerous Saw and Insidious films. Not films that are particularly good to be honest but they've all done well at the box office which has given him plenty off freedom to go off and do his own thing away from franchise work. He wrote the 2014 film Cooties that was a fun and entertainingly gooey high school horror and now he has written and directed Upgrade. A science fiction/body horror film that in my opinion wees on everything else he has done from a height.
It's the near future. Technology plays a massive and intrusive part in everything we do. Grey is an old school mechanic who does not like the direction modern life has taken. He is not a fan of the automated world around him but when an accident and the mugging that follows brings tragedy into his life the insertion of a chip called a STEM into his spine is the only thing will get him back on his feet. And with the help of STEM he sets out for answers but a suspicious detective called Cortez realises there's more to the accident and to Grey than meets the eye. On top of that, technology is snakey. Very snakey indeed.
I enjoyed myself with this one. It's a brutally efficient and entertaining piece of work that feels like a throwback to the sci-fi/actioners of the 80's and 90's but in the best possible way. It's like the grumpy lovechild of Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg. Packed full of darkness, wince worthy bodily trauma, some very funny moments that take the edge off the carnage and it's all pinned down by a great performance from Logan Marshall-Green as a man who grows to love a bit of new found power. It takes a while to find it's groove but when it does it really takes off with a fight scene that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Whannell shoots his action as clearly and efficiently as Grey deals with the obstacles placed in the path of his quest for answers. A few fun camera flourishes aside it's very economically done and fun to watch. But the joy of these moments isn't the viciousness on display. It's Grey's reaction to it all. With STEM in control he's both an active participant in the action and a shocked spectator and Green's facial expressions really sell it to us and Whannell is wise enough to let us dwell on those expressions during the more brutal moments. It's this decision to hold back some bit stops the film from falling into 18 certificate gorefest territory. That said there's still enough nastiness here to sate any bloodlust.
It's not all good though. I get the idea that perpetual gloom and bland soupy darkness always indicates a murky future but it doesn't make for a very visually exciting film. I know it's shot that way in part to cover up it's obvious low budget but it does get a bit grating. That blandness extends to the bad guys and henchmen in Grey's way too. They are not one bit memorable and only a hilariously OTT moment involving a sneeze and an angry bartender will stick with you. The same is true of Detective Cortez, the woman on the trail of Grey. Betty Gabriel does her best in a woefully underwritten part but nothing about her part of the story will grip you either. The film is at it's bloody best when the spotlight is on Grey. A scene of him facing down a bar full of lowlifes while sitting in a wheel chair is a joy and a scene of him chasing an adversary through a warehouse full of zombified VR junkies will leave you gripping your armrest then dropping your jaw with it's conclusion. The more squeamish moments and the laughs compliment each other too, one giving you a vicarious thrill and the other giving you a moment to relax.
It's far from perfect but when it works it really works. Well worth a watch if you aren't afraid of a bit of crunchiness and at 100 minutes long it doesn't give you a chance to get bored. Logan Marshall-Green should be getting the roles Tom Hardy always wins. He looks very like him but he's a far more interesting actor and I hope he keeps dipping his toes in genre waters.