Heart of Stone stars Gal Gadot as Rachel Stone, a secret agent who completes her assignments by using an AI known as the Heart, and yes, this is a real movie and not some Saturday Night Live sketch or social-media meme. Nonetheless, as far as feature-length films go, it’s certainly an unintentionally amusing joke.
Debuting on Netflix during the dog days of August (11, to be precise) presumably in the hope that it’ll vanish without attracting too much attention, Tom Harper’s streaming effort echoes various espionage actioners gone by, the most prominent of which is the recent Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning—Part One, with which it shares not only an interest in cutting-edge world-altering technology but the sight of its hero leaping off a perilous cliff and parachuting to safety. Gadot’s heroine later jumps into the ocean, out of a plane, and off an exploding airship, proving that if there’s a dangerous surface available to use as a springboard, Rachel Stone is the bounding badass to call.
Heart of Stone introduces us to Stone in the Italian alps at a swanky chalet where she’s working to take down the world’s most wanted arms dealer (he hasn’t been seen in three years!) with the aid of her crack MI6 teammates Parker (Jamie Dornan), Bailey (Paul Ready) and Yang (Jing Lusi). Stone is a hacker who’s unqualified for the field and thus never allowed out of their (literal and proverbial) van.
Yet no sooner has that fact been established than the squad’s mission goes sideways and Stone is enlisted for in-person spy duty, during which she impresses her comrades by keeping things from falling apart. Unfortunately, any success is short-lived, since further chaos jeopardizes their task—at which point Heart of Stone reveals that its main character is more than just a pretty computer-geek face.
(Warning: Minor spoilers follow.)
Stone, it turns out, has actually been embedded with MI6 by the Charter, a clandestine organization comprised of rogue secret agents (à la Citadel) whose mission is to do what other nations won’t in order to maintain global peace. The Charter accomplishes this via the Heart, an omniscient artificial intelligence that’s operated by Stone’s HQ-based assistant Jack (Matthias Schweighöfer), who uses the tool to conjure up 3D holograms of Stone’s locations, deduce and provide her with statistical analyses regarding her best courses of action, and to point out literal pathways that she should follow to achieve her ends. Jack interfaces with the VR Heart by waving his hands and arms around in Minority Report fashion, while Stone follows its every command—except, of course, when she doesn’t, because she’s a rebel who also likes to follow her instincts.
Per cliché, Stone plays by her own rules, which—when things don’t go as planned—results in her getting chewed out by both her MI6 boss as well as her Charter superior Nomad (Sophie Okonedo). Stone and her comrades wield playing cards that conform to their cutesy codenames (Stone is the nine of hearts), while Nomad and her fellow bigwigs are referred to as Kings. Heart of Stone throws these terms around willy-nilly without ever properly explicating its mythology. The result is that a good bit of the early going feels steeped in gobbledygook that’s more laughably convoluted than clever—a situation that isn’t remedied once the narrative’s pieces eventually fall into (somewhat neater) place.
Heart of Stone’s plot involves a mysterious hacker named Keya (Alia Bhatt) who screws up Stone and company’s arms-dealer kidnapping and whose agenda only becomes clear once the film delivers its major twist. The moment, however, plays far more tepidly than Harper and screenwriters Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder intend, and that’s additionally true of the ensuing set pieces that dominate the proceedings. Of those, a prolonged car chase through Lisbon proves reasonably concussive and is thankfully devoid of excessive CGI. That’s not the case with a later airborne skirmish that lands Stone and Keya in the Senegalese desert, where some terrible rear-projection effects ruin the realistic globetrotting panache sought by the director.
Heart of Stone plays like reheated leftovers, its flavor familiar but diluted. Nowhere is that more apparent than in its dialogue, which is so flat that it’s a veritable embarrassment of embarrassments. Responding to a teammate warning her about pursuing gunmen, Stone retorts, “Yeah, I can tell by the bullets.” A scoundrel informs the heroes that “knowledge is power” and that “if you own the Heart, you own the world!” And upon seemingly having the Heart and its Kings in dire straits, a different baddie states, “That’s a winning hand.” In light of these groan-worthy quips, the film’s habit of interjecting ill-fitting songs (such as Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is”) into its mayhem is about as close as these shenanigans get to comedy.
A game Gadot is put through the action-cinema paces: tussling with mercenaries; dodging gunfire; flying through the sky; getting blown up in vehicles; and generally taking as many lumps as she dishes out. That she never looks anything less than fabulous is part and parcel of such a fantastical affair, but worse is her generally wooden line readings and equally one-note sternness. An international spy adventure doesn’t just demand bruising combat and spectacular feats—it needs charm, glamor, and wit, and Gadot brings very little of those latter qualities to her role. In her defense, at least some of that is due to sub-par material; it’s not as if the bland Dornan, Bhatt, Okonedo, or Schweighöfer do much to help the cause. Still, it’s Gadot’s name above the title, and her inability to exude requisite magnetism is responsible for this genre photocopy’s lack of personality.
Heart of Stone’s laziness is epitomized by its refusal to even have a point of view about AI; the Heart is depicted as merely a supreme weapon that can be used for good or evil, as well as a de facto boss that non-conformist Stone can disobey. Even when she’s bucking algorithmic orders, though, Gadot’s protagonist simply follows in the risk-free footsteps of her covert-ops ancestors—as does her first mission, which seems apt to also be her last.
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