Movie review: Upgrade (2018)

From time to time a low budget movie gets released that doesn’t feel like low budget at all.   Upgrade is one such movie.  Featuring innovative camera work, good action sequences and a believable future, this movie was surprisingly entertaining.  A little dark and depressing, but still very much fun to watch.

Upgrade is a movie about human enhancement gone wrong.  Grey Trace is a stay at home husband who restores muscle cars and sells them to wealthy customers.  He is the polar opposite of his wife who rides a fully autonomous car and extensively uses an Alexa-like device in their automatic home.  One evening, they go together to deliver one of Grey’s cars to a reclusive millionaire inventor of human enhancing technologies.  On their way back home, their self-driving car gets hacked and crashes into an ambush, which leaves the wife dead and Grey paralyzed from the neck down.

Depressed and trying (and failing) to kill himself, Grey is approached by the same inventor, and is offered a second chance at life.  Grey will be equipped with a microchip in his spine, which would act as a bridge between his brain and the rest of the body.  The procedure is experimental and illegal, so Grey would have to act as a paraplegic in front of everyone else until the technology gets fine-tuned and approved.

Back home, Grey is shocked to find out that the chip can talk to him (in his head).  It has its own intelligence, and it offers Grey help in finding his wife’s killers, as the detective assigned to the case doesn’t seem to be doing anything useful.  STEM, the chip, quickly finds the first killer, and Grey goes after him.  Grey, being a car mechanic, is no match against a trained killer with body enhancements, and as he’s about to get killed, STEM takes over his body.  With mechanical precision and greatly enhanced speed and strength, the movie delivers the first in a series of incredibly well choreographed fight sequences.  Grey’s body is like a puppet on a string, while Logan Marshall-Green, the actor portraying Grey, looks on with bemusement.  The actor deserves all the credit he can get for completely disassociating his head from the rest of the body and let the two do entirely different things.

What follows is a series of increasingly more intense fights as the protagonist progresses from one killer to the next, until he gets to confront the mastermind behind his wife’s murder.  Interwoven in this quest for revenge are body enhancements, such as guns surgically implanted in people’s hands, nanobots capable of shredding people’s brains, car chases and an evil A.I.  Grey has to fight not only the killers and the detective who goes after him, but also the STEM inventor who fears that his secret surgery could be revealed and tries to shut down the chip remotely.  The bitter ending just underscores the bleakness of the movie.

Let me stop right there and explain myself.  Many reviews criticize the movie for not knowing whether to be funny or serious.  Marshall-Green certainly displays some comedic qualities, as he disgustedly observes the bloody work of his body, over which he has no control.  However, for me the movie set its tone with the murder of his wife.  This was as gruesome as I was able to handle, especially given that I grew to like Asha in the few moments when she appeared on the screen.  If anything, I found the movie serious, with a few out of place comedic elements, and with that mindset I got to enjoy it more.

There was indeed much to enjoy.  The fight sequences were the pinnacle of the movie, also thanks to the camera work.  The camera kept a steady frame on the impossibly flexible body of Grey, as he angled away from body blows, with the rest of the environment being in motion.  In addition to the fights, the filmmakers paid very close attention to the technology.  This is a not so distant future, and autonomous cars or virtual assistants are not unknown to us.  Still, this movie shows them off in a subtle, yet very effective style.  The cars are utilitarian, yet very distinct from anything else on the road.  The virtual assistant is more capable than our current ones, but in a very believable way, like when Grey tries to overdose on painkillers and cannot cheat the assistant into giving him a large enough dosage.

Acting is also solid, to an extent.  Marshall-Green is absolutely superb in his role: from a carefree car mechanic, through a bitter paraplegic, to a disgusted accessory to multiple murders, he is perfect in each stage of the movie.  The rest of the cast had very limited options to develop, so I can’t blame them for not delivering stellar performances.  Melanie Vallejo, who plays Grey’s wife Asha, comes across as really likeable, and sets up her murder so well that even I was rooting for revenge.  I’d compare her to Morena Baccarin’s character in Deadpool 2.  The rest of the actors are just flat bit players, and they deliver the little they are expected to.  The only disappointment for me was Betty Gabriel, who plays the detective, who comes across without any real personality, and I could never care enough to decide whether she was a positive or a negative character.

The only issue I’ve had with the movie was the writing.  It is not as tight as I’d like to see it.  In hindsight, the outcome hinges on a great amount of luck and random chance.  The mastermind, who is supposed to be calculating and scheming throughout the movie, turns out to be just very lucky.  This diminishes everyone in the movie: the heroes, as well as the villain’s henchmen.

Still, Upgrade was a very pleasant surprise to me.  This dark and brooding murder revenge movie has some very strong science fiction elements, excellent fight choreography, a vastly underrated main actor and a very solid ending.  It is worth seeing more than once.

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