' ' Cinema Romantico: Heart of Stone

Monday, September 11, 2023

Heart of Stone

The latest Netflix assembly line production “Heart of Stone” has considerable subterfuge going on, double agents and double crosses and so forth, which is appropriate given how its screenwriters Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder have adhered to the basic lessons of screenwriting guru Robert McKee, studying, and essentially copying the structure of similar movies, James Bond and the “Mission: Impossible” series, to think of two. In and of itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s only half the battle. You must take that structure and expand on it, to paraphrase the age-old wisdom dispensed by David Bowie in “Zoolander.” Director Tom Harper’s “Heart of Stone” expands little and rarely colors between its own lines in interesting ways. Even when it does, like a brief digression on Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere,” it comes across more like drafting on that song’s recent resurgence than trying to create something of its own. It’s all the more ironic given how the plot turns on an artificial intelligence system known as The Heart, kind of the precog operation of “Minority Report” crossed with the sonar mass surveillance of “The Dark Knight.” Of course, it’s also similar to the AI system of this summer’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning,” though there AI was a villain and here it’s, like, a force for good? Far be it from me to suggest Netflix would seek to incept home viewers drowsily listening along to “Heart of Stone” more than watching it with pro-AI propaganda, but something sure seems fishy. 

If the Heart is AI, then the Stone is a surname, forename Rachel (Gal Gadot), who begins the movie as the laptop-bound technician of an MI6 field team until she is quickly revealed as a butt-kicking super spy of a secret organization called The Charter, global backup to basically everyone and everything, operating in lockstep with the Heart, meaning that Rachel is like Bond if Q wasn’t giving him gadgets before he enters the field but coaching him through the field. Ah, but one double agent is rudimentary, so “Heart of Stone” goes for the double fake out with two double agents when another of the MI6 operatives, Parker (Jamie Dornan), reveals himself to be the movie’s preeminent villain. Parker’s partner in crime is hacker Keya (Alia Bhatt), seeking possession of the Heart for their own purposes, both having to do with revenge.

Exposition, as we have bandied about so many times before, can be good if gleefully performed, or joyfully written. But all the exposition here comes across as motivational tracks-covering, as if the screenplay realized in the middle of itself that it had not layered its characters in any real way within the action itself and then just stops, suddenly, to explain what’s going on. Its intriguing philosophical complications, meanwhile, are glossed over. Determinism, which gets a shout-out, is too heady a concept for a folding laundry movie like this one, and when Stone quips about ignoring the odds proffered by the Heart, it sounds less like a statement of free will than a baseball manager eschewing analytics. No, the Heart is simply the object that can save or destroy the world, though the world itself remains abstract rather than tangible, glimpsed once in the form of a truck driver who unexpectedly has Stone hitch a ride. Though it’s really just a way to get our secret agent from one place to another, in the few moments when she’s crawling around outside his ride while he sings along to Foreigner, it evinces a clueless schmuck unaware the whole world is teetering around him. (That the soundtrack opts for “I Want to Know What Love Is” rather than “Heart Turns to Stone,” however, is evidence of the kind of amateur production going on here.)

Though Dornan is fine, mostly his presence reminds us how the supervillainy, if not also the action, was more far more fun and inventive in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” Really. Bhatt’s performance is confusing and unconvincing, though I hesitate to fault her, stranded in a part written somewhere between haughty hacker brat and genuinely vengeful, an impossible register to find. Gadot can’t find a register either. In the introductory scenes, when she is supposed to flit between spy innocent and spy extraordinaire, she just kind of plays them both…the same? At the same time, if the title and a couple early exchanges imply that Rachel has, ahem, a heart of stone, it seems intended to crack as the movie progresses, though the machinations don’t do much to suggest this and neither does Gadot. And that, I guess, is what I mostly want to discuss here, Movie Star connoisseur that I am, the curious case of Gal Gadot.

It’s clear both from the movie’s promotion and conclusion that Netflix intends “Heart of Stone” as a Movie Star franchise for Gadot, though Harper noticeably struggles to harness her Star Power. Patty Jenkins harnessed it for “Wonder Woman” by rendering her a Fish Out of Water and building set pieces and shots that took advantage of her guilelessness, but “Heart of Stone” a la “Red Notice” wants Gadot to be cool and crack wise and, man, she just can’t crack wise. So, where does that leave us? There’s one shot of Gadot in a black jacket that called to mind Angelina Jolie in “Salt,” still one of the best Movie Star vehicles of recent times. But in “Salt,” through a combination of tactile action and director Phillip Noyce’s framing, Jolie was kept front and center and conveyed as larger than life. Gadot, on the other hand, gets lost in “Heart of Stone’s” CGI sludge while Harper’s framing befits a Netflix production, reducing Gadot to a strictly small screen star.

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