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Non-Review Review: Bloodshot

Bloodshot is a deeply dysfunctional movie.

At its core, Bloodshot offers a collision of old-fashioned nineties-era action spectacle with modern superhero genre tropes. There’s certainly a rich vein of material to be mined in the uncanny valley between Hollywood’s recent past and its inescapable present, with the intersection of these two styles of film-making being a larger part of the appeal of the trainwreck theatre of movies like Venom. Unfortunately, Bloodshot finds a way to combine the least appealing aspects of each approach, resulting in a film that feels hollow and unsatisfying.

Pounding excitement?

Bloodshot does get some points for the cleverness of its pivot from stock nineties action movie into modern superhero fare. Indeed, given the character’s origin as one of the most nineties of comic book characters at one of the most nineties of comic book publishers, there’s even something a little wry in trying to transition him from an older style of blockbuster into something a little more modern. Indeed, there’s even some interesting metatext there, with Vin Diesel himself as one of the last nineties action heroes transforming into a straight-up superhero.

Unfortunately, Bloodshot never manages to get these moving parts to line up in an interesting or compelling manner, always following the path of least resistance towards inescapable destinations. The film offers a couple of heavy-handed meditations on free will and self-determinism, but there’s a grim irony in a movie so formulaic arguing for the importance of making one’s own choices.

Diesel powered.

To be fair to director David F. Wilson, the opening scenes of Bloodshot helpfully indicate exactly what sort of movie this wants to be. Bloodshot opens in the style of a nineties Jerry Bruckheimer role, with Vin Diesel evoking Nicolas Cage. Ray Garrison is introduced leading a deadly military intervention, arriving on familiar tarmac to find his beautiful wife waiting for him, leaning against his vintage convertible. “That’s what we fight for guys,” Ray states, without a hint of irony or self-awareness.

Wilson unashamedly evokes the language of late nineties action cinema. After bidding his colleagues farewell, Ray puts on his sunglasses. (His raybands, if you will.) He picks up his girlfriend. The camera whirls around him. Lens flair lights up the screen. The saturation goes way up. It’s as shameless an homage to Michael Bay as anything in Bad Boys For Life. What follows is a collection of familiar movie clichés, including a villain calling himself “Martin X”, who holds meetings in a meat locker and torments his victims by dancing to Psycho Killer. (He observes, “Never gets old.”)

Pearce-ing observations.

Bloodshot borrows a little of the self-aware irony that informs so many modern blockbusters, that quiet desperation to let the audience know that it is in on the joke. At one point, cybernetics specialist Emil Harting complains that the Talking Heads soundtrack was a bit much. These observations work not so much as self-criticism as insulation. They try to protect the film from any wry snark that might be directed at it. Indeed, Bloodshot goes out of its way to introduce two separate snarky tech guys who offering running commentary on what is happening.

Shortly after this introduction, Ray is yanked from his idealised existence. He awakens inside a laboratory, and is informed that he has been the subject of a military experiment. The casting goes a long way here, with Bloodshot drafting in Guy Pearce to lend some weight to the sudden genre shift. Pearce is effectively playing a familiar variant on his role from Iron Man 3, a cog within the military-industrial complex who is undoubtedly much more sinister than he initially appears to be.

A deep and dreamless slumber.

Again, there’s just a hint of wry metacommentary buried in all of this. Vin Diesel is fifty-two years old. He first came to prominence at the turn of the millennium, parlaying supporting roles in films like Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room, but he broke out as a leading man in 2000 and 2001 with roles in films like Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious. Diesel was one of the last leading men to emerge before the War on Terror changed the cultural landscape and before films like X-Men and Spider-Man turned superheroes into a dominant cinematic form.

It’s too much to suggest that Diesel has entirely separated himself from superhero cinema. It would be impossible for any blockbuster star to completely insulate themselves from the genre. After all, the Fast and Furious films after Fast Five are superhero movies with muscle cars, Riddick is himself something of a superhero, and Diesel himself voiced Groot in both Guardians of the Galaxy and the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Diesel has never quite embraced it either. It’s notable that Bloodshot marks his first lead role as a bona fides superhero.

That healthy glow.

That anxiety simmers through Bloodshot, which plays out as a companion piece to the mid-life crisis that nineties stars like Tom Cruise and Will Smith have been playing out in recent years. Cruise has sought to turn himself into the franchise with the Mission: Impossible series, while Smith has struggled to adapt to the modern cinematic landscape in a variety of ways by casting himself in streaming blockbusters like Bright and superhero films like Suicide Squad, while accepting the rare star-driven roles in films like Aladdin and Gemini Man.

In its most interesting moments, Bloodshot seems to acknowledge the bizarre spectacle of Vin Diesel finally and belatedly reinventing himself as a superhero. “Your body can’t do this forever,” Gina tells her husband as they rest in bed together. It is a cautionary tale. There is the kernel of an interesting idea here, the question of how a movie star deals with being folded into the demands of an established intellectual property. However, that would require a level of self-awareness that seems to elude both Bloodshot and Diesel himself.

Just a Guy, standing in front of Vin Diesel…

Bloodshot lacks the slight sense of introspection that marks Tom Cruise’s work on The Edge of Tomorrow or Mission: Impossible – Fallout, both of which hinge on understanding the nature of the audience’s fraught relationship with Cruise’s screen persona. A version of Bloodshot willing to capitalise on its premise would require the vulnerability that Diesel brought to his early roles in films like The Iron Giant, but which has been largely absent in the years since the actor has begun insisting that he can never lose a fight on-screen.

Instead, Bloodshot becomes a dull monument to the ego of its star. Reinvented as an unstoppable killing machine, Bloodshot is quick to assert Diesel’s power. This is a man who begins sparring with concrete pillars, to prove how hard he is. The film harks back to the early nineties experiments with the superhero genre by refusing to mask or disguise its central star. The eponymous comic book character has a deathly white pallor and a red circle in his chest. Bloodshot refuses to make any cosmetic alterations that might distract the audience from the presence of Vin Diesel.

“I wanna take his face… off…”

To offer the film some credit, an early action sequence makes a number of strong choices in terms of production design and lighting – saturating the screen with strong red, whites and blacks. It is too much to describe this as stylised, but it certainly suggests a unique aesthetic. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. The bulk of Bloodshot is given over to dull and perfunctory action sequences that centre around an invincible action hero.

If Bloodshot borrows the most superficial elements of nineties blockbusters, it leans into the most hollow elements of contemporary blockbusters. Bloodshot actually explains the concept of “nanites” to the audience, assuming they have never seen a film before. In practice, this means surrounding Ray with a computer-generated grey cloud of the kind featured in Terminator: Dark Fate or Thor: The Dark World. It is a dull visual, but Bloodshot keeps returning to it. The film is also full of indestructible people punching each other in largely computer-augmented shots.

No bad movies, except the ones we make ourselves.

At one point during a mission, Ray is shot through the legs by an attacker. He responds with mild irritation, turning around and kicking a humvee on top of them. There’s no sense of stakes in this. There’s no sense of human scale. Instead, there’s just the same vacuous power fantasy that defines so much of modern superhero cinema like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, only this time it has been enlisted in service of the ego of its star.

This causes real problems in the second half, as Bloodshot leans more heavily into the tropes of the modern superhero blockbuster. One of these tropes is the need to assert theme-as-dialogue, perhaps the most lasting legacy of Batman Begins on the modern superhero genre. Bloodshot understands that modern superhero films often feature third acts that feature characters talking at length about the core of the film. It’s a nice dramatic device if employed skillfully, adding a little heft to a standard punch-up.

Ray bands.

However, Bloodshot runs into the problem that the film can’t actually be about what it seems to want to be about – that collision of nineties movie stardom with the demands of modern intellectual-property-drive cinema. So instead, the film falls back on the sort recycled and reheated debates about the nature of free will. “People like boxes, Ray,” offers Harting at the beginning of his grand villainous speech, which would make sense if the film had touched on that idea in any substantive way at any earlier point.

Ray disagrees. “Life is about not knowing what’s coming!” he shouts, in the movie’s biggest moment. There is no small irony in the fact that Bloodshot is a movie where most of the audience know exactly what’s coming. There is a fairly solid metaphor somewhere in all this – that old cliché about the balance between freedom and security – but Bloodshot cannot find the energy or enthusiasm to arguably develop that point in a way that makes an sense in a story about a dead soldier who is reanimated as an unstoppable killing machine.

Bloodshot is a mess and misfire.

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