Not to get too inside baseball right off the bat, but when a studio sets a review embargo within days of a film’s theatrical release, there are really only two reasons why: A) They know they’ve got a certified clunker on their hands, or B) There’s a big ol’ plot twist that should be kept secret. I fully admit to assuming Option A in the case of Sony’s Bloodshot starring Vin Diesel, taking into account the years-long process getting this story to screen, the studio-swapping that basically nixed the idea of a Valiant-verse, the premiere date push-back, and some initial footage that looked like it had been delivered through a time portal from 2003. But to my D-tier superhero-loving delight, Bloodshot also comes with a heaping dose of Option B. It’s still an aggressively middle-of-the-road action movie, but the script from Jeff Wadlow (Fantasy Island) and Eric Heisserer (Bird Box) makes use of a genuinely clever storytelling twist that makes things feel bigger than the sum of its nano-parts.
(Note: I screened Bloodshot without having watched any of the trailers. If it’s still possible, please, please do the same because I have now seen the trailers and woof.)
Murdered U.S. soldier Ray Garrison (Diesel) is the first successful result of a modern-day Frankenstein experiment conducted by the under-the-radar organization, Rising Spirit Technologies. Led by Dr. Emil Hartin (Guy Pearce), the project not only brought Ray back from the dead, but also injected his blood with nano-tech, giving him a wide range of abilities like instant healing and super-strength. Now a living weapon, Ray immediately sets out to find the man who slaughtered him and his wife, Gina (Talulah Riley), but soon discovers that the people who brought him back aren’t who they seem, and the enemy he should be gunning for might not be the obvious one.
Interpret this as you will, but the main thought running through my head throughout the first 20-ish minutes of Bloodshot was that this film simply had to be secretly directed by Michael Bay. Sundrenched, lens-flared slo-mo moving across airplane tarmacs. Loving close-ups of helicopter blades. Enough jingoism to qualify The United States Military as a love interest. A female character who literally does not speak unless it’s to worry her husband won’t stop kicking ass long enough to have sex. All the trademarks.
But without giving the whole thing away, I can say Bloodshot consciously made the decision to start off as a mid-aughts cliche factory on purpose. It’s a gutsy move I certainly didn’t expect from a Vin Diesel-led blockbuster and one that elevates Bloodshot, at the very least, from a safe comic-book bunt to an interesting swing for the fences. Twelve years after Iron Man turned the genre into an all-consuming juggernaut, I’ll take an attempt at something new over a movie off the perfectly-fine assembly line.
Unfortunately, by the time the credits roll the idea of Bloodshot remains better than its execution. It’s a clever concept for an origin story, but it’s still 100% an origin story through and through, and one that leaves its title character without a real enemy to fight for most of its runtime. That’s a heavy load to carry, and wide though he is, Vin Diesel just isn’t the man for the job. I’ve never thought of the Fast & Furious figurehead as a bad actor, but he works most convincingly in two modes: explosive in-your-face yelling or delivering action-guy quips at the volume level just above human comprehension. Bloodshot has plenty of both, but also asks its lead to show off a more subtle brand of anger, an unspoken doubt toward everything running through his head, including his own grief. In these moments, you still like Vin Diesel—there’s a reason he’s the anchor of the billion-dollar F&F franchise—but you don’t believe a word coming out of Vin Diesel’s mouth.
The script doesn’t have much time for anyone other than Ray Garrison, but Eiza González (Baby Driver), adds yet another ultra-charming supporting role to her growing list as KT, a fellow Rising Spirit experiment outfitted with a mechanical breathing device, while Lamorne Morris (New Girl) pretty much walks away with the movie as Wilfred Wigans, a coder who helps Bloodshot control his tech.
But in a film like this, all these names eventually have to get down to some shoot-em-up action, which is, unfortunately, the least memorable part of the entire movie. Director David S.F. Wilson is a long-time video game and trailer director out of Blur Studio—the VFX and animation company founded by Deadpool director Tim Miller—making his feature-directing debut with Bloodshot. I really admire his eye for style; an early shoot-out in a tunnel is ten-times more interesting than it should be because of the way Wilson bathes the violence in alternating harsh reds and cool blues. But the unbearably CGI-heavy set-pieces themselves are as forgettable as they come. Copy-paste one of these motorcycle chases or elevator fights into any comic book movie since, say, Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man and no one would notice.
The scene that did stick in my mind is one that also feels imported from a completely different movie. Sitting in the RST gym facility, Ray watches KT perform the meditation technique called qigong at the bottom of a pool, the weightlessness of the water and a single spotlight behind her lending an otherworldly, dreamlike vibe to the movements. It’s completely wordless, beautiful, and a stand-out example of Wilson’s ability to sculpt with a subtle hand. There’s also not another moment even remotely similar to it for the rest of the movie. That’s what makes this film such an odd case. Like its title character, Bloodshot clearly has a human story fighting to get out, but something is pushing it to be the most soulless, uninteresting version of itself possible.
Bloodshot premieres on Friday, March 13th.