Running Time: 122 mins
UK Distributor: Netflix
WHO’S IN HEART OF STONE?
Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, Jing Lusi, Paul Ready, Jon Kortajarena, Archie Madekwe
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Tom Harper (director), Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder (writers), Bonnie Curtis, David Ellison, Gal Gadot, Dan Goldberg, Don Granger, Julie Lynn and Jaron Varsano (producers), Steven Price (composer), George Steel (cinematographer), Mark Eckersley (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Intelligence agent Rachel Stone (Gadot) embarks on a dangerous global mission…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON HEART OF STONE?
There’s been a lot of criticism towards streamers over the last few years for the underwhelming quality of their big-budget original movies, but a common one lately has been the feeling that some of them were in fact written by AI instead of actual human writers. I certainly remember saying something along those lines about such streaming duds as Apple’s Ghosted, Netflix’s Your Place or Mine, and Prime Video’s Beautiful Disaster, and while I don’t actually believe that the scripts were indeed generated through ChatGPT (which, in the middle of a lengthy WGA strike that, as of writing, has no end in sight, would be highly unwise to say), there’s something so soulless about them that not even the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into them can disguise how hollow they feel, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that computers took over the creative process, instead of being the mere tools that they should always be.
Every once in a while, though, one bucks the trend, even if it’s just barely so. In this case, Netflix’s Heart of Stone is a film that, by all accounts, should be just another one of the streamer’s big-budgeted misfires that, once again, feels as emotionally empty as the AI that presumably brought it into existence. However, thanks to some decent direction, lively performances, and a script that – yes – feels like it was written by actual humans, it narrowly avoids the pile of expensive yet utterly disposable streaming entertainment, while still being a mostly fun action ride.
In the film, as directed by Tom Harper and written by Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder, Rachel Stone (Gal Gadot) is an MI6 agent who, along with her team of operatives including Parker (Jamie Dornan), Yang (Jing Lusi) and Bailey (Paul Ready), embarks on international missions to capture and extradite known criminals. Unbeknownst to her team, though, Stone is actually a highly-trained operative for a secret government body known as the Charter, which assists the more official agencies on their missions with the help of a powerful artificially-intelligent server referred to as “the Heart”. However, when rogue computer hacker Keya Dhawan (Alia Bhatt) sets her sights on the Heart to use for her own nefarious purposes, Stone finds herself fighting to protect it from falling into the wrong hands, as well as keep her team safe despite the Chater’s recommendation to not form close human attachments, as per the Heart’s demands.
The set-up is fairly generic spy action movie stuff, and given its heavy themes on AI and international espionage, it often feels like a slight clone of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (both movies, incidentally, share some of the same producers). However, by the end of the first act, things take a rather surprising turn which, while not exactly revelatory for this kind of film, changes certain dynamics up enough to keep the momentum going, not to mention pave the way for some much more immediate threats that are, at times, quite intimidating. Some of the explanations behind parts of it are a little murky, but there is still a decent level of suspense that carries through into the second and third acts, where Tom Harper’s direction achieves a fine balance between the stunt-heavy set-pieces of the Mission: Impossible series and the grittier, hard-boiled aesthetic of the Bourne franchise (minus a good chunk of the shaking camera, of course).
Not only does the director have a good grasp on what it is to deliver highly thrilling action sequences, but he’s working with a script that overcomes most of its formulaic tendencies with a warm central core that could only come from human writers. As a character, Gal Gadot’s Rachel Stone isn’t that much different from the likes of James Bond or Ethan Hunt, nor is she even as compellingly written, but the script does allow her enough moments to at the very least feel like a person, one that has clear objectives and motivations when carrying out her dangerous missions, as well as a sense of humour that isn’t too calculated or manufactured. It helps, also, to have an actor with as much screen presence and charisma as Gadot in this role, because it makes this character who might be less interesting on paper suddenly feel more alive and energised in practise, but it all starts from Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder’s script that actually does seem to be trying to work with its genericism instead of lean into them like a soulless machine would (the only part of the movie that does feel like it was AI-generated is an opening credit sequence which, after the controversial one used recently for Secret Invasion, sets a bad precedent for such artist-driven ventures going forward).
The action itself is fairly engaging, with numerous car chases, shoot-outs, one-on-one combat, and even the odd bit of sky-diving and parachuting to match the most basic of big studio spy thrillers, and it’s well-shot by cinematographer George Steel to where, even in the most chaotic of moments, you can just about tell what’s going on. Of course, not all of it works, for there is the odd bit of blatant green-screen usage that takes away some of the filmmaking intrigue, but for the most part it does look like a lot of these actors and stunt performers really did do a lot of this stuff on-camera, which is more than one can say about, say, Netflix’s Red Notice (also with Gal Gadot, funnily enough) where a lot of it was just a bunch of highly-paid actors in front of numerous unconvincing soundstages.
While I wouldn’t say that Heart of Stone is a new action movie classic, because at the end of the day it does stick to a tried-and-tested spy movie formula that is comfortably familiar, it is a wholly decent one that you can easily enjoy during a night in on the sofa with family or friends. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the few Netflix blockbusters that I wouldn’t mind checking out again, which is something I never once thought about with something like The Gray Man or The Old Guard, which by comparison to this feel much more forgettable and slightly less likely to have been crafted by human hands.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Heart of Stone is a generically plotted but nonetheless engaging spy action-thriller that bucks the trend of recent Netflix blockbusters by feeling like it was made with some semblance of a soul, thanks to some lively filmmaking, charismatic performances, and a script that injects some humanity into the formulaic structure.