Positioned as the start of a spy franchise for star Gal Gadot a la “Mission: Impossible” or the James Bond films, Tom Harper’s “Heart of Stone” is the film equivalent of trying to make something go “viral.” It’s an overly calibrated hodge-podge of better movies with absolutely no original thought of its own, populated by stock characters, and brought to life with uninspired filmmaking.
Gadot plays Rachel Stone, a member of a secret peacekeeping operation called the Charter who is undercover as a newbie MI6 tech agent. A job that takes her—and the movie—across the globe from the Alps to London to Lisbon to Senegal and finally Iceland, yet also manages to film all of these locations in the absolute most boring way possible.
A lifeless Sophie Okonedo plays her boss, Nomad, who recruited her when she was 20 years old. Why? We have no idea! Did she have training beforehand, or was she trained once recruited? “Heart of Stone” doesn’t care.
Netflix stock actor Matthias Schweighöfer plays “Jack of Hearts,” Rachel’s tech aid, who is always plugged into a supercomputer known as The Heart, which allows him to use surveillance data to aid her in her missions. This data visualizes in front of him, which he manipulates with his hands. This was pretty cool … when Tom Cruise’s character did it in “Minority Report.” Here it plays like a shallow, artless copy.
The Charter’s mission is explained multiple times through exposition-laden dialogue. In fact, most characters speak in exposition, try-hard quips, or melodramatic monologues. Actors Paul Ready and Jing Lusi, as Stone’s teammates Bailey and Yang do wonders with their terribly written parts but are not given nearly enough screen time to truly craft fully realized characters.
Jamie Dornan plays teammate Parker like a toned-down version of Colin Farrell in “Daredevil,” which is a shame because his twisty role really should be played at the highest possible decibel. The same goes for Alia Bhatt as hacker Keya, who can never transcend the character’s many cliches. Only model-turned-actor Jon Kortajarena, a bleached blond baddie in a popped-collar leisure suit, seems to understand what this kind of villainous role requires.
This is mostly a disappointment coming from co-screenwriter Greg Rucka, whose screenplay adaptation of his own graphic novel “The Old Guard” had a similar ensemble vibe but with lived-in and richly developed characters. It also helped that the director of that film, Gina Prince-Bythewood, has proven time and again as both an excellent actor’s director and also has a keen eye for staging and filming action sequences.
The same cannot be said for Harper, who cannot properly keep his actors framed—or lit—resulting in many choppy, murky fight scenes. The rest of the action sequences are completely lifted from other, better films. The cold opening in the Alps borrows heavily from more than one Bond movie, while several aerial stunts play like bargain basement “Mission Impossible.” There’s even a sequence that rips off the big dirigible finale from “The Rocketeer”—but with CGI fire that somehow looks worse than the effects in that far superior (and much more fun) 1991 film.
The lackluster filmmaking does nothing for Gadot, who can kick and punch just fine but cannot emote beyond one bland facial expression. This would maybe be less of an issue if her fight sequences were filmed in a way that highlighted her physical prowess. Along with the murky lighting, Harper’s coverage is everywhere. He simply does not know how to film a movie star.
Thematically the movie is also an abject failure. It throws around terms like “determinism” without exploring how the philosophy affects the characters’ actions in relation to how The Heart uses an algorithm to “maximize lives saved” in any given situation. Stone has lengthy conversations with the film’s baddies about whether it’s right for them to use its power to take out the people on their naughty list. But she never once questions the Charter’s own brand of interventionism—or that its use of mass surveillance is akin to totalitarianism.
Even when presented with damning information about the Charter’s past, Stone—and the film—brush aside the implications of imperfection. The much too tidy script lays the blame on a single leader’s mistake rather than a flaw within the machinery or the very foundation of the institution that it advises.
“Heart of Stone” then wraps up the entire moral issue by killing off many characters and setting Stone up with a brand-new team. This is the age of IP and sequels and franchising, after all. It’s also the era of big data. So, I guess it’s about time we got a soulless film whose entire raison d’etre is to launch a new female-led franchise that also somehow acts as pro-surveillance state propaganda.
On Netflix now.
Heart of Stone (2023)
for sequences of violence and action, and some language.