Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is an old-school mechanic in a futuristic, high-tech world of cars that drive themselves, smart houses, and criminals packed to the gills with computer hardware and cybernetics. He rebuilds “relic” gasoline-powered cars for the wealthy elite, like reclusive tech mogul Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). Grey’s wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is a high-tech heiress in her own right, working at a company that creatures implants and artificial limbs for injured people. When Grey and Asha hand deliver a car to Eron, the young genius shows them his latest creation: STEM – a computer implant that can power anything… even human bodies.
As Grey and Asha return home, their smart car malfunctions, resulting in a horrific car accident. A gang of “upgraded humans” come down on them like vultures, killing Asha and paralyzing Grey. The local police are doing their best to find the men responsible, but don’t have enough to go on to find them. Eron comes to Grey with an opportunity – become the first test subject for STEM. Reluctantly, he agrees and the implant is put directly into his brainstem. It interacts with his brain to give him full mobility once again as well as heightened reflex, speed, and strength (thanks to the chip activating more muscles than Grey would be able to do himself).
One night, while Grey is going over drone footage of the night his wife was killed, STEM talks to him (voiced by Simon Maiden), pointing out details in the footage no human would notice, which leads to the identity of at least one of the men responsible for Asha’s death. Only Grey can’t go to the police with this info as he signed a gag order about the tech in his body. So STEM convinces him to look into it himself. The combo of Grey and STEM soon become a vigilante fighting force, taking out Asha’s killers one-by-one, a gang lead by a more-than-formidable “upgraded human” named Fisk (Benedict Hardie).
Upgrade is rated R for a very good reason – the violence is gruesome! While I’d heard there was plenty of violence here, it’s more quality versus quantity. The violence depicted here is straight out of 1980’s favorites like Robocop or Total Recall where heads were literally exploding and melting before our eyes! It harkens back to classic action flicks and a time before the American audience member became such wimps over what was “acceptable” to be shown for the public eye.
The story of Upgrade (written and directed by Leigh Whannell – Insidious, Saw) isn’t super original as the revenge action-thriller is a super popular genre right now with huge money makers like the John Wick series. However, the sci-fi elements and 80’s style hardcore violence put this in a league all its own. Plus, it’s got some great twists along the way as well to really set it apart.
The cinematography (by Stefan Duscio) is truly inspired. There’s some unique and interesting camerawork throughout the piece that really make Upgrade in a class all its own. You almost need a computer chip embedded in your own brain to pick up on all the cool nuances in the look of this film.
Logan Marshall-Green looks, moves, and acts like a poor man’s Tom Hardy. There were instances where I could have sworn it was Tom Hardy. So much so that I’m curious how I’ll feel when the former’s Venom hits later this year as the trailer for the Spider-Man spinoff actually felt like a knockoff of Upgrade’s trailer. Still, Marshall-Green did a damn good job carrying this film. He has a very expressive face, making me believe at times that he genuinely lost control of his own body. He’s that good!
Equally great was our villain Benedict Hardie. He doesn’t look like your typical bad guy, but he was a completely creepy badass that made me feel sorry for any poor sap who got in his way. The rest of the cast did their jobs well enough, though nobody else really stood out. I was hopeful Betty Gabrielle would shine as Detective Cortez, and she did her job, like the other secondaries, well enough. But overall nothing to really declare as a breakout performance.
Upgrade is a fun popcorn movie that’s tremendously entertaining and tremendously violent, which should please action aficionados and genre fans. It’s hardly the most original concept out there, and there are slow moments that dragged a bit, making the otherwise brisk 95-min run-time feel longer than it should. Overall, it was a bloody good time, even if it felt more like a Netflix Original than a cinematic wide release.