6 September 2018

Upgrade review

If there's one thing that film folk love talking about in this post-Netflix world, it's the importance of the theatrical experience, and while it's something I've always by and large agreed with (there are few things better than seeing a great film on the big screen as far as I'm concerned), it's actually Upgrade that has made me realise how right they are - albeit for a very different reason than the ones usually given. You see, if I'd have been watching Upgrade at home in my living room, I'd have turned it off within the first twenty minutes. But the act of having paid for a ticket and gone to the effort of getting to the cinema compelled me to stay, and I'm glad that I did. Those first twenty minutes or so might be incredibly rough to say the least, but by the time Upgrade gets to where it so obviously wants to be, there is a marked uptick in quality that ends up resulting in a film that while a long, long way from perfect, I'm mostly glad I stuck around for.

I realise that's pretty mild praise, but it's also the truth. Those opening twenty minutes or so are legitimately difficult to sit through, burdened by some truly atrocious dialogue, weak characterisation and stilted editing that all point towards the idea that no-one involved with the production really cared all that much about this part of the movie, especially when you compare it to some of the scenes that come along later. It's the definition of a paint-by-numbers opening, a series of scenes that exist solely to clue up the audience before the film gets to where it actually wants to be, and that shows.

After that point, though? Well, Upgrade never stops being a frustratingly uneven movie (there's a car chase towards the end that no joke, might be the most unexciting car chase ever committed to film), but overall, the good ends up outweighing the bad, especially if you're as much a sucker for a good fight scene as I am. The plot itself is nothing special, really - a quadriplegic technophobe gains a new lease on life thanks to a piece of sentient technology called STEM, and the two of them set about getting revenge on those who put him in a wheelchair - but it's a serviceable excuse for the fight scenes that result from it, which feel like the main reason (maybe the only real reason) that Upgrade exists as a movie.

And in fairness, they're pretty good fight scenes, offering a combination of impressive choreography and clear, fluid camerawork that can't help bring to mind films like The Raid: Berandal or John Wick: Chapter 2, albeit without ever actually being as good as either of those. What does let Upgarde stand out somewhat, however, is the context in which these scenes exist and the way that allows these fight scenes to play with tone more than the average action scene does, especially when it comes to the first of these fight scenes. You see, STEM doesn't just give main character Grey Trace the ability to walk again, it can also take control of Grey's body when he gives it permission to do so, turning him into a dangerous, hyper-capable, almost Neo-like figure... from the neck down. His head, however, still belongs to him, and seeing him confused and bewildered and scared as his body kicks all kinds of ass is damn funny, right up until the point that the situation turns on a dime and plunges headfirst into the downright horrifying. It's a great beat for a film to contain, and only possible thanks to the great performance given by lead actor Logan Marshall-Green, who embodies both of these extremes - precision killing machine and bewildered normal guy - at once and sells it to us with ease.

But around these fight scenes? Upgrade just didn't set my world on fire, to the point where I were to rewatch it more than once, I'm pretty sure that I'd end up fast-forwarding through a fair chunk of the movie. The only other parts of Upgrade that I feel are noteworthy beyond the action are the cinematography, which is pretty in that modern, neon, low budget way throughout, and actor Benedict Hardie, who plays the primary antagonist with a sense of quiet, confident menace that I found quite compelling. Beyond that it's just not a particularly memorable film, already seeping from my brain far quicker than I'd like despite how much I enjoyed the fight scenes. It's ironic, given the circumstances in which I saw it, but ultimately? Maybe you should wait for this one to hit streaming services.

3 stars

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