“Upgrade” is the latest release from Blumhouse (more specifically, BH Tilt), a successful production company known best for low or mid-budget horror movies that often achieve box office success. Despite that name behind it, and writer/director Leigh Whannell (“Insidious: Chapter 3”), this movie is not horror, and probably wouldn’t even qualify as a thriller; it’s an action film with more smarts than your typical summer blockbuster. It’s nice to see such a great team branching out, even while employing some of the same talent both on camera and behind-the-scenes.
Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, a mechanic who is becoming near-obsolete in a modern, technological world. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), works for a robotics company and enjoys the luxury of her self-driving car and smart home, while Grey clearly longs for a more old-fashioned life. The movie wastes little time getting us to the inciting incident, in which Asha is killed and Grey is paralyzed in a seemingly random violent attack. Once Grey takes the offer of tech genius Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) to have a new technology implanted in his spine, offering him the ability to move again, he becomes obsessed with his mission to find the group of men who killed Asha and ruined his life. The catch is that Grey can’t reveal his new ability to move to anyone, since the implant (STEM) is untested, so he must pretend to be paralyzed most of the time.
As is evident from the trailer, STEM sort of has a mind of its own, and is able to completely control Grey’s body once he gives it permission to do so. This leads to a number of impressive fight scenes throughout the film. Not only is the fight choreography mesmerizing, but the camera work also adds to it, with a stabilization technique that makes it stand out from other action films. Marshall-Green sells every moment, with facial expressions that convey his confusion – and often disgust – at the actions of his own body. It’s also evident whether Grey or STEM is in charge, which makes his physical performance that much more extraordinary.
Aside from Grey’s inability to share the news about STEM, another roadblock for him is Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), who is working the case of his attack. Gabriel (“Get Out”) is a Blumhouse staple and is just as great here as usual, though with less to do. She plays the suspicious cop role well, both in interrogating Grey and tracking him discreetly to figure out what’s going on.
Unless you’re opposed to violence and gore, you won’t feel like “Upgrade” (rated R) is a slog in any sense of the word. The movie’s run time is 95 minutes, which, along with its action sequences, makes it a fairly fast-paced adventure. It’s also much funnier than one might expect of an action film, with regular laughs peppered throughout its run. It’s not without its flaws: some of the dialogue is weak and Asha definitely got “fridged,” which is unfortunate. On the other hand, this movie is not trying to be anything it isn’t: it’s a fun, sometimes shocking, creative action film with great direction and great performances.
“Upgrade” is in theaters now, and if you want to enjoy yourself watching the big screen this June, you should definitely buy a ticket!