Directed by Leigh Whannell (2018)
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
Upgrade takes place in the near future and tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a man who has shunned modern technology and spends his days working on muscle cars for fun and profit. On his way back from dropping off one of these repair jobs at the home of a local tech-giant, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), he and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are attacked and robbed, resulting in her death and his paralysis. In order to exact his Crank-like revenge (C’mon, we’ve all seen the trailer!), Eron offers to implant an experimental chip, Stem (Simon Maiden), in Grey that will help bridge the gaps left in his nervous system due to his spinal cord injury.
Ok, I gotta say right off, I LIKED Crank. I didn’t especially care for the sequel, but there was just the right mixture of action, humor, and shit-show to keep me entertained for the first one. When I saw the trailer for Upgrade, I was hoping for something along similar lines. I didn’t expect this to live up to that gold standard, just get me close. Sadly, it didn’t deliver.
Probably 75% of all the good butt-kicking fun laced with the silly premise that Grey has no clue how to interact with an AI user interface was shown to you in the trailer. Outside of that, we’ve got a lot of build-up about how pissed off and depressed Grey is after losing his wife and becoming paralyzed. Now, there’s plenty of room for a discussion on ableism but, in the grand scheme of things, this movie wasn’t hateful or crass, just a bit tone-deaf in a couple scenes. In addition to that, there’s a half-hearted attempt at a detective/spy story as Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) works to solve the assault/robbery/murder and Grey tries to hide the facts that he’s ambulatory and exacting his revenge. In other words, it was kinda a snooze.
If I’d looked a bit closer before viewing, I would have realized that Upgrade was written and directed by Saw and Insidious creator Leigh Whannell. I’ve seen the majority of his work and it just never really grabbed me. There’s usually some neat concepts, but they don’t ever get properly developed. In Upgrade, there’s a plot-twist you can see coming a mile away followed by a second, slightly less obvious but doubly unnecessary, twist. Honestly, the story could have been more interesting if there weren’t twists at all, but instead, we knew about them up front and the story would actually dig into them.
What usually keeps me interested in his films is the cast. Cary Elwes, Elijah Wood, and Lin Shaye all keep you engaged in Whannell’s various films even if the writing doesn’t. Upgrade doesn’t have that. The cast is mostly made up of stunt people and actors who work as recurring guests on various TV shows. There just aren’t any seasoned professionals to help get you from start to finish. Instead, we’ve got Logan Marshall-Green spending the film trying to either look like Jon Bernthal or Tom Hardy, depending on the scene.
If you can’t wait until October to see Venom, this is thematically similar. And from Venom’s trailers, Upgrade is gonna look waaaaay cooler. In fact, what DID keep me interested was the look of the thing. There were some costume choices that, in order to properly describe how spot on they were would be spoilery (supposing that you don’t see it the twists coming way off), were perfect references to some classic films. The props and sets were impressive. The action scenes were probably the least cool-looking thing and they didn’t suck. So, in the end, that’s a win.
If I’d had lower expectations going in, I would have enjoyed this a lot more. In fact, if you read this review, go see the movie and then think I’m an idiot for not liking it, I’ve probably performed just the service that I wish someone had done for me. So, go out and see this. Just temper your expectations and you’ll be fine.