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Netflix tries muscling in on the Mission: Impossible game with the adrenaline-charged spy thriller Heart of Stone, built as a vehicle for Gal Gadot (one of the producers) to swap superheroics for a more earthbound combo of brains, tech savvy, instinct and formidable fight skills. While it’s a few notches up from the Wonder Woman star’s last action romp for the streamer, Red Notice, it feels only marginally less manufactured from the spare parts of other movies. But it gets the job done and is sure to pull solid numbers. It doesn’t hurt that Gadot has appealing chemistry with co-star Jamie Dornan.
The timing seems mildly unfortunate given that the most recent M:I installment, Dead Reckoning, hit theaters only a month ago and also revolves around a risibly named AI mega-brain, “The Entity,” which nefarious forces are angling to control.
Heart of Stone
Efficiently entertaining if you don’t take it too seriously.
Release date: Friday, Aug. 11
Cast: Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, Paul Ready, Jing Lusi, Archie Madekwe, Enzo Cilenti, Jon Kortajarena
Director: Tom Harper
Screenwriters: Greg Rucka, Allison Schroeder
2 hours 3 minutes
In Heart of Stone, that all-powerful cyber tool is called “The Heart,” capable of hacking any network in the world, manipulating technology, sabotaging any system, even downing planes. It’s operated from a central hub by a jocular techie code-named Jack of Hearts (Matthias Schweighöfer), who has one of those movie jobs where he stands around swiping the air and conjuring detailed hologram representations of all kinds of video and data, including exactingly calibrated statistical chances of success or failure on any given mission. He’s like Steve Kornacki with a cutting-edge equipment upgrade.
The Heart is the key asset of the Charter, an underground peacekeeping organization made up of highly trained former intel operatives. Frustrated with their various governments’ by-the-book methods, they have banded together, using sophisticated technology to neutralize global threats.
If you’re wondering who came up with the unlikely nonsense of a network of anonymous do-gooders, thwarting world conflicts and saving maximum lives while taking no credit, that would be screenwriters Greg Rucka (who penned one of the better Netflix action thrillers, The Old Guard) and Allison Schroeder (lead writer on the rock-solid crowd-pleaser Hidden Figures).
Pushing the scenario further into arch spy intrigue, the group is headed by four “Kings,” each of them designated by a different playing card suit. The tough-talking King of Hearts known as Nomad (Sophie Okonedo) is the principal figure here, but strategic appearances are made also by her three counterparts: Chinese cyber-intelligence ace Clubs (BD Wong), erstwhile Russian security force commander Spades (Mark Ivanir) and ex-CIA deputy director Diamonds, played by a venerable A-lister in a surprise two-scene cameo, with a silver asymmetrical bob that makes her look like an Otto Dix portrait of the Swing Out Sister vocalist.
The extended pre-titles sequence follows an MI6 unit comprised of field agents Parker (Dornan) and Yang (Jing Lusi), transport and comms guy Bailey (Paul Ready) and newbie tech officer Rachel Stone (Gadot) as they attempt to take down Europe’s most wanted arms dealer, Mulvaney (Enzo Cilenti), who’s been lured out of hiding by a high-stakes elite gambling event at an Italian Alps casino.
The tense mission plays out in the luxury resort, on the ski slopes and in a cable car; it doesn’t go exactly as planned, in large part because Rachel demonstrates — at least to the audience — an unexpected skill set. The high rollers are betting on the body count of a real-time Navy SEALs operation, meaning that a criminal element has cracked U.S. military encryption codes. A mysterious woman, later revealed to be 22-year-old Indian tech wunderkind Keya (Alia Bhatt), makes her presence known, along with her access to MI6 comms channels.
Following the Mulvaney operation, the Brit unit tracks Keya to Lisbon, where a near-fatal ambush and relentless pursuit by a kill squad through the old-town streets of the Portuguese capital leads to the full disclosure that not one but two of the MI6 agents are not what they seem. Of course, this being a globe-hopping spy thriller, the lead assassin is a cool-looking super-model type (Jon Kortajarena) with a mean glare, a bottle-blond quiff, vicious eyebrows and a heavy foot on his motorcycle accelerator. He’s the Mediterranean variant on Pom Klementieff’s character from Dead Reckoning.
Not much more can be discussed about the plot without spoiling the two big reveals that happen relatively early on. But director Tom Harper also goes pedal to the metal with the fight and flight action as the resourceful Charter agent steps out from undercover and endeavors to ensure the security of The Heart, then undertakes a series of near-death challenges attempting to retrieve it once it falls into the hands of a villain, who has recruited Keya as a vital accomplice. The latter turns out to be not nearly as ruthless as she seems when her personal agenda comes to light and the cold-heartedness of her partner in crime gives her serious moral qualms.
Never mind that the script barely tries to find credible motivation for the malefactor so determined to take control of The Heart — described by Keya as “the greatest skeleton key in the world” — and so merciless in immediately putting it to use to spread chaos and death, not to mention toppling one “King” after another. A hurried backstory in war-torn Chechnya doesn’t really amount to much, though it does provide a grievance against the Charter.
What will matter more to the Netflix audience that evidently eats up this stuff is that the movie remains in constant motion as the action zips from Italy to London to Portugal to the Senegalese desert and Iceland, propelled along by Steven Price’s suspenseful score, as well as lots of big stunt work and explosions.
Naturally, the mainframe of The Heart is kept in the least accessible place possible, a hydrogen-filled zeppelin-type airship called the Locker, floating 80,000 feet above remote land in Africa. Cue lots of skydiving and aerial daredevilry, including a nasty scuffle on top of the airborne Locker, taking the place of the usual speeding train. There’s not much in the way of humor, but the usefulness of a rotary phone landline in a sticky situation makes for a cute analog joke in such a hi-tech context.
As a woman cut from Ethan Hunt cloth, Gadot is in fine form, kicking ass with elegant athleticism but at the same time remaining within the boundaries of regular human vulnerability. Rachel’s bond with her MI6 comrades provides some emotional texture, as does her eventual big-sister vibe with Keya, though it’s refreshing that this is a female-driven action flick in which the protagonist is not required to have a love interest.
Dornan shows darker shades beneath his character’s easygoing veneer, the role marking a complete about-face from the devoted husband and father he played in Belfast. The natural charisma of Gadot and Dornan carries the film, with Okonedo lending no-BS authority to the stern but caring Nomad and solid support from Bhatt, Schweighöfer, Ready and Lusi.
Shot by George Steel, who has worked extensively with Harper, including on Wild Rose, The Aeronauts and Peaky Blinders, the movie looks a touch flat and grainy on a big screen but will no doubt play just fine at home.