Friday, June 1, 2018

In Theaters: UPGRADE (2018)

(US/Australia - 2018)

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell. Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Benedict Hardie, Linda Cropper, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Clayton Jacobson, voice of Simon Maiden. (R, 100 mins)

An imaginative take on the revenge thriller, the high-concept UPGRADE wouldn't have been out of place as Vidmark Entertainment title in the new release section of your favorite video store in the early '90s. That's meant as a compliment, as it's a fast, mean, and cynical indictment of our reliance on technology that has a message but doesn't take itself so seriously that it forgets to be entertaining. In other words, it's a B-movie like they used to make. In a vaguely-defined near-future America with self-driving cars, omnipresent surveillance drones, and MINORITY REPORT touch-screens everywhere, proudly blue-collar and stubbornly Luddite mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a man out of his time. He hates technology, still listens to music on vinyl, drinks Budweiser, and refuses to use his wife Asha's (Melanie Vallejo) self-driving, autonomous car. Asha's the primary breadwinner, working for a robotics corporation called Cobalt, but Grey makes some decent money restoring old muscle cars for rich guys with money to burn. Asha is stunned to learn that Grey's latest client is Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), a brilliant and reclusive young tech mogul who owns Vessel, a groundbreaking company whose achievements have far surpassed Cobalt. On the way home from delivering Keen's car, Asha's malfunctions and goes offline, speeding up and crashing until a rescue unit arrives and proceeds to kill Asha and shoot Grey in the back of the neck, leaving him to die.

Awakening after a three-month coma to find he's paralyzed from the neck down, Grey has no interest in being taken care of by machines or his mother (Linda Cropper), which leads to an attempted painkiller overdose. While recovering in the hospital, Grey is visited by Eron, who offers to make him a test subject in a secret experiment involving "STEM," his latest biomechanical creation. It's a small, insect-sized implant that will fuse with his spine and serve as the missing "bridge" between his brain and body, allowing him to walk again. The catch: it's still experimental and top-secret, so when he's not alone, he still has to be in the wheelchair and appear to be quadriplegic to everyone, including his mother. Once he learns to walk again, Grey is in for another surprise: STEM is alive, existing as a HAL 9000-like voice (Simon Maiden) that only he can hear. STEM not only assists in Grey's mobility but also with the investigation into Asha's murder, which is at a dead-end with Cortez (Betty Gabriel), the lone wolf cop who caught the case. Watching drone surveillance footage through Grey's eyes, STEM is able to identify one of the killers--all of whom have surgically implanted shotguns embedded in their arms that fire out of the palms of their hands--and directs Grey to his address. A scuffle ensues and Grey is getting his ass handed to him, at which point STEM informs him "I need your permission to operate independently." With permission granted, Grey becomes a one-man killing machine, reborn and unstoppable thanks to STEM's all-knowing, all-seeing technology, especially once STEM warns him that a concerned Eron is trying to take him offline and has him visit a hacker with specific directions to override its creator's capabilities.

Written and directed by SAW and INSIDIOUS writer/co-star Leigh Whannell, UPGRADE has its share of jokey, crowd-pleasing moments, with some insanely over-the-top splatter kills and one very nicely-done car chase. Whannell's script does let Grey's transformation from "everyman who can't fathom ending someone's life" to "wisecracking vigilante smartass" happen a little too abruptly, as he's only offing the second guy responsible for Asha's death before he's already dropping bon mots like "Don't you know I'm a fucking ninja?" The technophobic chip on Grey's shoulder is a little overplayed early on, with Whannell working too hard to present him as a working class hero of the future, but the message gets less ham-fisted the more UPGRADE goes on, with a pair of late revelations and an unexpected ending that's downbeat enough that you have to wonder if Whannell had to fight to keep it. It's a potentially star-making role for Marshall-Green (PROMETHEUS, THE INVITATION), whose performance is both gritty and funny, whether he's interacting with the voice of STEM to create a back-and-forth buddy movie that exists only in his head, or in some of his inspired, Buster Keaton-like physical acting when Grey cedes control of himself to STEM, pulling off the effect that his entire body is a puppet on a hardwired string. And after making a memorable impression in the second and best PURGE installment, her unforgettable work as Georgina in GET OUT, and with her tough, incredulous Cortez here, it's time for Gabriel to be rewarded with her own movie. Goofy, fast-moving, and ultraviolent, UPGRADE pulls off a lot with a pretty low budget. There's definitely some word-of-mouth sleeper hit potential, not to mention a very probable cult following once it hits streaming and then lands in cable rotation for the next few decades.

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