On its surface, Heart Of Stone certainly has all the markings of an intriguing spy-thriller: A hero who’d sacrifice themselves for the greater good battling a villain who’d stop at nothing, a mystery revolving around a powerful artificial intelligence device, a handful of international locations that photograph well, and lots of death-defying stunts. Trouble is, we saw that mix a month ago, only constructed with greater efficiency and entertainment in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part 1. Functioning as a third-gen mimeograph at best and a dull actioner at worst, Netflix’s bid to jump-start to a potential franchise lacks the inspiration and innovation it needs to truly impress.
A rolling stone gathers no moss, a proverb that lonesome super spy Rachel Stone (Gal Gadot) knows to be true. Her job affords her no time for a personal life. She even shudders at the mere suggestion of adopting a low-maintenance cat. But she does value the friendships made with her MI6 colleagues, driver Bailey (Paul Ready) and field agents Yang (Jing Lusi) and Parker (Jamie Dornan), as they’ve bonded over baddies and bad times. However, Rachel’s harboring a big secret: She’s also working undercover as part of an elite, clandestine force known as The Charter, a worldwide organization of spies tasked with supervising crime-stopping government operatives.
Rachel’s current objective is to oversee the safety of her team as they hunt down an underground criminal syndicate that’s been tapping into top secret military tech to fund its mysterious operation. On a mission at a ski chalet in the Alps, Rachel and her team lose their mark, but spot another: Keya (Alia Bhatt), a 22-year-old orphaned hacker from India. She and an elusive yet-to-be-revealed partner are looking to take down The Charter by robbing them of their artificial intelligence program—referred to as “The Heart”—which contains the power to control all of the world’s information. As their globe-trotting game of keep-away ensues, betrayals occur and stakes are raised.
Director Tom Harper and screenwriters Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder (working from a story by Rucka) instill the film with some thought-provoking thematic ideas on the nature of evil and they sound a faint alarm on technology’s evolving capabilities. However, they have trouble fleshing out their characters beyond one-dimensional portraits of how action heroes and villains behave and sound. It’s a relief that Rachel and Keya are given a smartly intertwined arc that’s sufficiently followed through, instead of stereotypical two-women-fighting-each-other shenanigans. Yet their hokey, cringe-inducing dialogue (which sounds like lines lifted from generic genre sludge compiled by a computer, and delivered with just as much passion) works overtime to undo whatever good elements are there—shocking given both Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Bhatt (Gangubai Kathiawad) are dynamic, compelling performers. Even Dornan, a versatile actor who handled drama (Belfast) and comedy (Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar) in the same year, is railroaded by his personality-free material.
Sadly, the mediocrity extends to the action, which lacks oomph, interest and a propulsive sense of fun. Stunt choreography fails to provide awe and amazement, due partially to its raggedy editing and close-up framing. From the car pursuit in Lisbon to skydiving onto and off of a blimp in West Africa, these sequences are predictable and perfunctory, rather than ingenious and imaginative. Not until late in the film does a ray of light shine through during a high-speed motorbike chase involving Rachel, a blonde henchman and a truck driver on the highways of Iceland, where action and levity commingle to great results. But overall, the feature’s James Bond-style (replete with a Rihanna-knock-off-meets-John Barry-clone opening credits theme song) and Mission: Impossible-esque aspirations go unfulfilled.
There’s a certain sense of irony about a plot hinging on a computer that uses algorithms to predict what people will do, given this is from a studio that uses algorithms to predict what people will like. And it seems the filmmakers are smartly hiding this—blessedly pushing back against this soulless style of creative decision making—in the underlying commentary showing the heroine triumphing whenever she’s guided by her heart rather than the analytics when assessing her options. Unfortunately, they hold themselves back far too frequently, perhaps fearing biting the hand that feeds them.
Similar to Extraction, Chris Hemsworth’s stunt-driven franchise for the same streamer which started out rough and led to a far superior sequel, maybe Gadot’s vanity vehicle will be given the same grace to return again, rolling harder and smarter, especially if subscribers click play. What’s there demonstrates a modicum of decent world-building, from which filmmakers can hopefully spin-off better, more capably crafted capers.
Heart Of Stone streams exclusively on Netflix on August 11