Upgrade, Leigh Whannells sci-fi revenge tale that soaks in as much Death Wish as it does Machine Girl, is by all intents and purposes a massive upgrade for the actor turned writer turned director. Having written the first three films to the substantially successful Saw franchise while directing the third Insidious film, Whannell has made quite a name for himself between horror fans. He’s a type of renaissance man, dabbling in multiple creative processes, and Upgrade deftly demonstrates which of these processes he has honed.
Setting his film in the not-to-distant future, Upgrade introduces us to Grey Trace (a badass if not perplexing name) played by Logan Marshall Green (The Invitation [’15]), who is a mechanic with a passion for what future kids might call “retro cars”. On the way home from dropping off a muscle car to a billionaire client named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson pulling a convincing Dane Dehaan impression), Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are brutally attacked. Now a quadriplegic without a wife or the will to live, Grey is granted the ability to start anew with the assistance of a surgically implanted AI chip called STEM, which not only allows Grey to walk, but unleash an arsenal of kick-ass on the men who took all that he loved.
What could have easily been a revenge flick bogged down by the weight of the sci-fi genre – heady exposition, overly detailed gadgetry – instead flourishes in the minimalism of its future world. Cars pilot themselves and drones traverse the night, acting as eyes in the sky for the police force, while the cityscape pops with bridges suspended by beams of light and buildings that look akin to a neo-Tokyo. It’s a world that feels accessible and relatively pertinent to the state of our own technological advances, never quite overindulging in the meticulousness of its setting. Think of it as equal parts Timecop Lite and Diet Blade Runner, with Grey as a hell-bent Richard Deckard set out to eliminate AI controlled guinea pigs with machine gun arms.
These are thugs who have been subjected and treated as military test subjects, who fit the bill of brawny, battle hardened warriors who enjoy drinking dirty shots from a bar called The Old Bones. The leader of the pact, a wiry man named Fisk (Benedict Hardie), rocking both a tucked in shirt and mustache, strays from the conventional type of henchmen commonly displayed, which adds an intimidating layer of mystique. He’s calculated, determined and almost too hip for his own good, but when the proverbial gloves are removed, it’s a wild display of momentum.
Whannell focuses with a startling amount of precision on capturing the movements of Grey and his newly implanted device by letting the camera act as an extension of our upgraded fighter. When he gets knocked down, we get knocked down. When he dodges hooks and jabs, so to does the camera, swaying to and fro in what surmounts to a wondrously stylized bout with movie making magic that’ll smack a smile on your face.
Except not all the fights work here. By the final confrontation between Grey and Fisk, it feels as if the wonder of it all has taken precedence over the adrenalized tension, as nothing really feels at stake between the broken glass and battered fists. The two vigorously trade blows, deflecting hit after hit while verbally sparring, laying the groundwork for why that fateful night unfolded. It’s a fight that pops with neon-reds and broken set pieces, creating a smorgasbord of gritty eye candy, though it leaves some of the senses unscathed as we witness the physicality of an actor who has quickly become a solid performer.
Much of Logan Marshall Green’s screen-time is spent essentially talking to himself, as his partner in crime remains buried underneath his flesh. Grey comes off as a man in way over his head who also happens to be standing on the edge of sanity, and for the most part, Green sells it alongside Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel (Get Out [’17]), who continues to show why she’s a force to be reckoned with. There’s an element of camp to Green’s delivery, which doesn’t always work given the rickety one-liners Whannell tosses around, but it’s playful and lighthearted amidst some really dark and bleak themes.
Oh, and violence, which Upgrade isn’t quite stuffed to the gills with, but when it happens, it barrels at you. As expected, faces are bruised and fists are thrown, but in the tradition of the deathly indulgent franchise that Whannell’s name is attached to, shit gets f*cked up. In Grey’s first fight, he takes a kitchen knife and performs an extra wide Glasgow Smile on one of Fisk’s henchmen. A chase between Grey and another thug yields an accidently self-induced blast from a weaponized hand, showing what years of Jigsaw traps would do to the psyche. They’re startling, jaw-dropping, and unbelievably awesome; this may be the future, but shit gets medieval, quick.
Yet beneath the violence, style and urban streets of a sci-fi world lays a placid heart that beats with a bittersweet and harmonious euphoria. Grey fights for his lost love and will do anything to obtain it, which yields unexpected results that proves Whannell is far from disengaged with what connects audiences with characters. The devotion that drives Grey to seek revenge is hardly futuristic, residing in the one place where no AI chip could ever commandeer. Luckily for genre fans, Upgrade knows how to take themes of love and redemption and paint the town red with them, demonstrating that not all romances are created equal.