In his infamous review of the French horror movie High Tension, movie critic Roger Ebert opined that “the philosopher Thomas Hobbes tells us life can be ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ So is this movie.” Whereas Ebert intended for the comment to be the first, last and only word in the matter of Alexandre Aja’s now seminal New French Extremity film, I always took it as the highest possible praise (or, at the very least, a ringing anti-endorsement that was enough to spurn me to watch the movie the second that my eyes passed over that vicious phrase).
And, to be sure, that movie is everything that Ebert promised that it would be. It existed at the uniquely savage intersection between Psycho (1960), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Duel (1971). It was part of a decidedly French style of arthouse horror that went on to inform the far less inspired “Torture Porn” movement in mid 2000s American horror output. It coalesced its domestic horror movement into a driving force in the exact same way that Halloween did for the slasher genre in late 1970s America. It was, in short, a masterpiece within its movement, genre and country and one of the absolute must-see movies of the 21st century.
So when I say that, like storied forebear, Upgrade is “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” understand that I do so from a place of reverent awe. It’s not just that this movie got made in the first place (Blumhouse specializes in this exact kind of high-concept, mid-to-low budget action-horror hybrid and has been perfecting it as a genre staple for the last two decades). It’s that they did it at the exceptionally high-end level that is normally reserved for movies with high-end budgets, considerable A-list talent in front of and behind the camera and significantly more studio oversight than is normally preferable for the ongoing production of “movies as art.”
On its surface, the movie is about what you’d expect out of boilerplate revenge flicks (not unlike this year’s other sub-sub-genre masterpiece, the simply and aptly entitled Revenge). And old-school grease monkey Grey Trace (here played by no-Tom Hardy leading man Logan Marshall-Green, last seen as The Shocker in Spider-Man: Homecoming) and his wife Asha (Meanie Vallejo) are assaulted on their way home from dropping up a classic car that he fixed up for a wealthy, neurotic tech-mogul client of his (Harrison Gilbertson). His wife is killed but he survives as a quadriplegic. Frustrated and suicidal at his total dependence on the futuristic machines he despises, unable to assist in his wife’s murder investigation and incapable of doing the kind of hands-on work that was previously how he made a living, one of his clients offers him the opportunity to undergo an experimental and not entirely legal procedure that implants a computer chip into his spine that effectively reconnect all of his frayed nerve endings. This not only grants him full use of his body once more, but access to a Jarvis-esque AI system that’s capable of assisting him with his investigation into his wife’s murder and, when needed, take over control of his body and functionally render its host as an absolutely lethal super-soldier capable of advanced hand-to-hand combat, rapid-fire marksmanship, precision driving and “advanced interrogation” techniques (ie, torture) on any suspects he happens to have come across.
And that’s basically the movie as far as the plot’s concerned. Having been baptized in the fire of the horror genre (namely in co-creating the Saw and Insidious movies), director Leigh Whannell is uniquely suited for the exact kind of movie that this wants to be. The entire first act is devoted to the kind of workmanlike worldbuilding and character development (notably between the Traces) that these kinds of movies tend to rush through as quickly as possible in order to get to its first action-horror set piece just as fast as it possibly can. But not only does Whannell take his time with the setup (ensuring that the audience is fully aware of the lows of Grey’s situation and his personal need for vengeance), the first kills don’t really come into play until halfway (or longer) through the second act. The result of all of this waiting isn’t just that the Marshall-Green has ample opportunity to show that he is an excellent actor in his own right who deserves to headline more high-end projects, but that we get to understand the straight-playing rules of the lived-in futuristic setting as well as those that govern Stem’s (the techno-implant inside of Grey).
When the movie does get going, it falls into a comfortable rhythm of alternating action and horror set-pieces that at times feel like a third John Wick movie and at others feel completely at home within the Saw franchise. It’s a powerful one-two combo that makes this the kind of latter-day grindhouse movie that even, well, Grindhouse couldn’t quite stick the landing on. The body horror-esque augmentation of our on-the-ground bad guys that Grey is tracking down are damn near as fun conceptually as they are able to make out of them in practice, including arm-embedded shotguns, x-ray eyes, flesh-eating nanobots and the expected assortment of superhuman strength, speed, agility and endurance.
By the time the plot hits the final stretch in the third act, it’s pretty obvious where everything is ultimately going and the final reveal is probably one twist too many in a somewhat cluttered final confrontation with the guy ultimately responsible for the whole thing. And while I did end up wishing that the actual story was as interesting as the way in which it was filmed, I can’t deny that it proved to be a hell of a ride to sit through with a ton of really inventively frenetic camerawork that got where it needed to go in a timely manner.
Whatever you do, Folks, don’t let this one pass you by unremarked upon. It is undoubtedly one of the best movies of the summer (if not the entire year), especially in its two intersecting genres. It’s a sleek, nasty little picture that reminds us of just how much fun you can have in a theater when what you’re watching is thoroughly R-rated.
Buy on BluRay: Absolutely!