A film review by Craig J. Koban August 23, 2023

HEART OF STONE jj

2023, PG-13, 122 mins

Gal Gadot as Rachel Stone  /  Jamie Dornan as Parker  /  Alia Bhatt as Keya Dhawan  /  Archie Madekwe as Ivo  /  Matthias Schweigh÷fer  /  Sophie Okonedo as Nomad  /  Jing Lusi as Yang  /  Paul Ready as Bailey  /  Jˇnas Alfre­ Birkisson as Leifur

Directed by Tom Harper  /  Written by Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder

ORIGINAL FILM

NETFLIX's HEART OF STONE is the kind of film that feels like it was hastily cobbled together by writers that simply stapled dozens upon dozens of genre clichÚs on the wall and then proceeded to randomly throw darts at them to see what they could include.  

It's clear that the makers here were attempting to do two things: 

(1) Give star Gal Gadot her very own action thriller starring vehicle and would-be franchise starter and (2) mine the espionage genre for everything but the kitchen sink and somehow hope that by including these stock elements the final product will stick to landing.  

The problem with HEART OF STONE is not with its lead actress (Gadot is an endlessly appealing and charming on-screen presence that is also easily capable of carrying an action-heavy film), but rather that it's monotonously uninspired and hopelessly derivative of so many countless other better spy flicks that have come before it.  This is box checker cinema, and director Tom Harper and screenwriters Greg Ruka (who previously penned the quite good Netflix film THE OLD GUARD) and Allison Schroeder seem more driven by stuffing their film with overused conventions as opposed to being genuinely innovative.

As we learn in the film's opening sequence, Rachel Stone (Gadot) is part of Britain's MI6 intelligence team and serves as their requisite tech guru who has no field experience whatsoever.  Her team - comprised of Yang (Jing Lusi), Bailey (Paul Ready), and Parker (Jamie Dornan) - is hot on the trail of an arms dealer holding up in a mountainous and snowy retreat based in Italy (which mostly looks phony and the product of CG composting pinch hitting for actual location shooting).  Things don't go well for the team, which forces Stone to improvise.  In an early reveal that's hardly shocking, Stone is actually a highly adept super agent with ample field training that works for another spy organization called The Charter, which utilizes an omnipotent and uber powerful piece of AI dubbed The Heart (it works quite a bit like the predictive technology that was employed in MINORITY REPORT).  Resident Netflix actor Matthias Schweighofer plays Jack, who's Q to Stone's 007 and uses his computer skills to harness The Heart and give her lightning fast real-time INTEL to help navigate through just about any problem.  

 

 

Even though Stone manages to save her MI6 team, her efforts attract the attention of a rogue hacker named Keya (Alia Bhatt), who wants to enact some revenge and seek out and nab The Heart away from Charter's director, Nomad (Sophie Okenedo).  Realizing that The Heart cannot get into the wrong and nefarious hands, Stone kicks things into overdrive and goes on a deadly assignment that sees many twists and turns.  I will say, on the positive, that HEART OF STONE does a fairly decent job in the very early stages of thrusting viewers into this clandestine world and introducing us to all of these power players with a nimble footed economy.  It could also be said that the fine actors assembled here do what they can and make their respective characters engaging despite being rather one-dimensional and underwritten.  Ready and Lusi as Stone's MI6 squadmates are charming enough, not to mention Jamie Dornan, an actor that's been performing relative miracles as of late to shed his FIFTY SHADES OF GREY indiscretions by tackling diverse roles and genres.  Alia Bhatt is also quite good in her role that  could have wallowed in dime-a-dozen hacker stereotypes.  And, of course, we have the statuesque Gadot, who brings a low-key grit and determination to her tricky dual allegiance role.  Playing Stone doesn't require an acting clinic, mind you, but it's a part that modestly plays into her respective strengths.

In pure Spy Thriller Troupes 101, HEART OF STONE requires everyone on both sides of the moral fence to go on a globetrotting trek to seek out and claim the ultimate MacGuffin for themselves, in this case the aforementioned Heart, and it becomes clear very early on that this piece of improbably powerful artificial intelligence bares an almost plagiaristic resemblance to another MacGuffin in a very recently released spy thriller.  I just watched MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING - PART 1 last month, and its story also concerned AI tech (called The Entity) that required the heroes to protect it from ever getting into the hands of terrorists that want to use it to upend world order.  Watching HEART OF STONE come out so soon after M:I-6 makes it depressingly come off as a petty copy cat when it comes to its basic premise.  One of the other gigantic issues that plagues this film is that the writers have no idea what they want to say about The Heart itself.  Just consider all of the dicey ethics of using an unfathomably powerful algorithm to save lives in the field.  It's okay for the good guys to use such tech (which involves a crazy amount of privacy rights breaching surveillance), but it's not okay for the bad guys to use it in a similar fashion.  Obviously, the villains of the piece have more dastardly plans, to be sure, but it's astonishing how tone-deaf and lacking in - ahem! - intelligence this script is when it comes to thoughtfully dealing with such potentially rich thematic terrain.  

And it's pretty inescapable just how woefully slavish HEART OF STONE is to the spy genre as a whole.  Instead of creatively forging its own path and identity, it's just lazily rehashing story/character beats and arcs from the genre itself and hoping it feels fresh and revitalizing.  There's nothing wrong with filmmakers trying to take bankable stars and give them their own James Bond-ian inspired franchise-to-be, and in some rare instances it has paid off handsomely and has even managed to out-fox the very series they're imitating (take the JASON BOURNE films, for instance).  It's of no coincidence that the production company behind most of the recent M:I films (Skydance) is behind HEART OF STONE, and it's pretty clear that they're clamoring for the same net results in giving audiences a female Bond/Ethan Hunt hero for a new age.  I usually applaud any film that attempts to hand over a genre exercise to an empowered female star when far too many have been quarterbacked by men in the past (and present).  HEART OF STONE is so infatuated with being a female-led Bond/Hunt picture that it categorically forgets to inject some original ideas into the underlining material.  And that does a serious disservice to not only audiences, but to Gadot herself, who was so endlessly charismatic, strong, and winning as WONDER WOMAN, but here she plays the umpteenth variation of a the same kind of tired spy character that goes through every preordained beat in the genre playbook.

I was also taken aback by how flimsy HEART OF STONE looked throughout.  One of the exciting cornerstones of the Tom Cruise lead M:I films was seeing his secret agent travel from one stunningly realized and shot locale to the next and placing himself in a scandalously insane stunt within said locations.  HEART OF STONE has a story that takes its protagonist to such a wide array of environments, ranging from England, Portugal, Senegal, and Iceland, but Harper never once makes practical use of such locations.  Whereas the M:I films made viewers feel immersed with a you-are-there veracity, HEART OF STONE feels like a ViewMaster reel of its globetrotting.  There's an unflattering amount of digital fakery on display that just took me out of its scenes far too quickly.  There's little sense of tactile realism in the film, and even when Harper drums up a few pulse-pounding and hard-hitting action sequences, it's all for naught and kind of too-little, too late.  And at 125 minutes, HEART OF STONE is too sluggish, too meandering, too convoluted, and, yeah, simply too generic to warrant a recommendation.   

One last thing: Like so many films do as of late, there's a final scene here that serves as sequel bait.  

Note to all franchise starting wannabes out there: Make the first one good to make us desire a sequel.  

That would be nice.  

Netflix seems to be repeatedly failing at making the next big super spy franchise. With duds like 6 UNDERGROUND, THE GRAY MAN, THE MOTHER, and now this under their belt, they're now 0 for 4.  Maybe, the streaming giant's heart is just not into it.  

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