(SPOILERS) If the trailer for Bloodshot gave the impression it had some meagre potential, that’s probably because it revealed the entire plot of a movie clearly intended to unveil itself in measured and judicious fashion. It isn’t far from the halfway mark that the truth about the situation Vin Diesel’s Ray Garrison faces is revealed, which is about forty-one minutes later than in the trailer. More frustratingly, while themes of perception of reality, memory and identity are much-ploughed cinematic furrows, they’re evergreens if dealt with smartly. Bloodshot quickly squanders them. But then, this is, after all, a Vin Diesel vehicle.
A stranded one at that. Sony’s bid to spin franchises from the Valiant comics brand – although, confusingly Marvel-like, another of their titles is in development at Paramount – looked unlikely with Bloodshot’s slack box office performance. However, it came cheap, and Vin has experience of characters continuing against the odds (Riddick). The Bloodshot premise, of a dead soldier brought back to life through advanced technology and set to work as the property of those who revived him, his memory wiped, will likely be familiar to most from Robocop, where Paul Verhoeven tackled it with just enough wit and pathos amid the ultraviolence.
Debut director David SF Wilson, previously a visual effects guy (and mostly in video games at that) can put together a coherent action scene, but he resoundingly fails with character. And while one might offer some leeway, given the budget, you’d have thought someone with an effects background would be able to commandeer CGI with a touch more verisimilitude (somehow, Neill Blomkamp manages it every time, and often on slenderer budgets). The two-tone colour keying is also sadly present and correct.
However much Vin may coast most of the time, he does have chops many of his action peers simply don’t. Which means that, when his wife (Talulah Riley) is murdered early on, he’s able to give it some welly. Subsequently, however, he’s largely on a guns-and-revenge kick that speeds by in a blur of weightless (visually and dramatically) pixels. If Wilson were a better director, he’d doubtless have picked up on some of the wittier material in the screenplay from Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2) and Eric Heisserer (Arrival). Garrison’s first encounter Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell) is an absurdly cliché-ridden affair, with Axe in a meat locker, decked out in a fur coat and dancing to Talking Heads as he threatens Garrison and then kills his wife. If you’re thinking this bodes ill, that’s because it’s a false memory even CEO Emil Harling (Guy Pearce), who controls the company utilising Garrison, regards as too much: “You’ve already ripped off every movie cliché there is. I think Psycho Killer and a dancing lunatic in a slaughterhouse is plenty” he tells his programmer lackey when offered some “new” ideas.
Kebbell’s absolutely the first person you’d cast as that kind of strutting cliché, so the reveal that he’s a fraidy cat is the more effective. And stock asshole colleague/opponent Dalton (Sam Heughan) is entirely unconvinced by the Bloodshot – or should that be Diesel? – brand: “You’re an exhausting shitbird with a revenge button we keep pushing” he tells the “relentless dick”. Doubtless Dwayne Johnson would agree. Dalton is an anodyne foe, however, with attachments somewhere between Doc Ock and Robocop 2. And Vin’s involvement (he’s a credited producer) doubtless helped ensure the pedestrian ironing out of his title character’s potential foibles.
Most of the cast fall into line with such formulaic characters. Eiza Gonzalez is pretty, bland, slim and kickass as the sympathetically breathing-challenged ex-military girl who helps Garrison out (she comes complete with some anti-Syria propaganda, having been affected in a chemical attack). Pearce can do these bad guys in his sleep, spouting dialogue like “People like boxes, Ray. They need structure. They need guidance. That’s just a reality”. Which may be sadly true, but he’d have been more fun cast as Bloodshot (in Lockout mode). Lamorne Morris is horrendous as the comic-relief tech whizz. His gags aren’t funny, and he’s sporting an English accent that would make even Don Cheadle blush.
Because the picture’s CGI is frequently cartoonish, complete with nanite armies resembling swarms of bugs, the transhumanist subject matter it’s addressing is somewhat undercut. From the top, such technology as given to Garrison promises immortality (the transhumanist goal, immersed as its proponents are in an abjectly materialist appreciation of existence). The nanite infestation may be exaggeration for (superhero) effect, but altering the system of any subject is essentially of the same nanotech order as we are currently seeing. A technology encountering unaccountable acceptance and endorsement amongst the majority via a jab.
In Bloodshot, the nanites’ remit is to repair – there’s a scene where Garrison is offered alcohol, which presumably should have no effect, being deleterious to the system. Even presuming such tech could be utilised as positively as it undoubtedly can be negatively, that would rely on those implementing it being other than eugenicists warning of rampant overpopulation. Garrison ultimately regains his own autonomy, but along the way we discover his body “was donated by the US military”. He has “a billion wireless microprocessors in his brain”, meaning he can be constantly monitored, tracked, interfered or interfaced with, communicated with, controlled, and if desired shut down: his entire system is completely programmable. Who doesn’t duh-ream of such a thing?
Bloodshot is at its best when it is messing with its protagonist’s reality – so during the first half. The stir and repeat of Garrison being reprogrammed, awakening, going on a mission, has its own Groundhog Day odour, except that in this case, all participants who are not Garrison must recite the same script each time. He is, essentially, in his own Dark City. As executed, though, the proceedings feel largely passé. Diesel has one sure-thing franchise to cling to (I’m unconvinced by Xander Cage’s prospects), and a movie as generic as Bloodshot isn’t going to change that at all.