It is the Hollywood screenwriter’s great misconception that self-consciously acknowledging cliche in a script neutralizes it. When one character does something hackneyed and another remarks on that quality, that’s the author of their dialogue signaling that they know the score and that they’re with us. But unless such a comment does something with the recognition of its artifice, channeling that towards auto-critique or deconstruction or postmodern what-have-you, it just seems like the writer couldn’t be troubled to think of anything better. Calling out their own hack tendencies can make a person seem clever and savvy just as easily as it can make them seem like a hack.
There’s a whole lot of winking going on in Bloodshot, David SF Wilson’s silver screen take on the flagship superhero of 90s alt-comics outfit Valiant. Though his origin story introduces him as a lethal combination of flesh and technology, the man born Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) actually fuses little more than RoboCop to Wolverine. The script goes through the factory-issue beats for any star vehicle about a supersoldier stripped of his memory and converted into a killing machine, an oddly specific setup to be so well trodden. There’s a loving wife as silent as she is blond, an eccentric murderer dancing around to Psycho Killer by Talking Heads, the barked vow to find and destroy the men responsible. After the first act winds up and our hero gets reborn, the lab techs responsible for converting Garrison into the unstoppable force known as Bloodshot mutter about how they went strictly by the book in concocting this scenario.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film fails to do anything with this trite simulation beyond plug it in to a story equally bereft of imagination. While sinister robot-handed scientist Emil Harting (Guy Pearce) and his lackeys pull the digital wool over Garrison’s brain’s eyes, their “reality” feels no realer. Everyone speaks in a pseudo-techno dialect that only breaks up the long strings of jargon with pat affirmations of thin archetypes. Garrison gains the obligatory Sturdy Female Ally in fellow augmentee KT (Eiza González), and a flavorless rival in the cybernetically enhanced Dalton (Sam Heughan). The film doubles up on tokenized comic relief, between bad nerd Eric (Siddharth Dhananjay) and good nerd Wilfred (Lamorne Morris, doing a dreadful and inexplicable English accent).
They’re all taken to school by Diesel, outdoing the entire cast in terms of sheer magnetism even with part of his character’s brain turned off. He delivers his every line with the gravitas of a platoon leader preparing his troops for certain death, and his rubble-gargled voice goes a long way toward selling it. His physical attributes prove a great boon to the film at large, particularly in the pair of standout fight scenes mounting the lone argument for this film’s existence. Diesel has the build and gait of a person who could conceivably be the recipient of a bionic boost. His punches look like how they sound. The standout sequence, a slow-mo ballet involving an overturned flour truck and a fistful of crimson flares, brings out his brutality via hypersaturated music-video expressionism.
That constitutes the height of Wilson’s stylistic flair, the overall lack of which betrays him as a VFX technician first and rookie director second. It’s not hard to see why he was tapped for the job, CGI showcase that it is. He milks that skill set for all it is worth, from the many synthetic limbs to one impressive shot in which an Italian port vista materializes from digital nothingness. He’s never more in his element than when a computer geek rotates a 3D holo-model of an environment he’s building; in fact, this qualifies as the sole moment in which the film evinces a lived-in, authoritative perspective. Wilson’s direction otherwise hews on the side of the expected, staging each scene as if he’s trying to create minimal obtrusions while the post-production team does their stuff.
A report last year announced Valiant Comics’ plan to build a connected universe around their intellectual property, making Bloodshot the vanguard of a grittier counterpart to the Marvel-industrial complex. That would explain why Diesel doesn’t assume the character’s trademark pallid skin and scarlet eyeballs until the climax, along with the mercenary tinge of an ending that shamelessly sets itself up to be built on. Franchises must be earned, by putting forth something that audiences could conceivably see themselves spending hours on over a course of years. Aside from the singular brawn of its leading man, this would-be springboard has nothing much worth launching. It’s a stack of wormed-over action tropes, and to make matters worse, the movie knows it – and yet does not know enough to spare us its missteps in the first place. Our collective memories of Wilson’s blunt-force feature debut won’t last much longer than Garrison’s.
Bloodshot is released in the US and UK on 13 March
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