There are good modern B movies – those films that still borrow the old termite-art terminology of back-half programming, because what does “double feature” even mean anymore, but have kept the phrase’s shorthand description for guttery, grungy giddiness alive – and then there’s Upgrade. There are sublimely ridiculous Robocop rip-offs and bottom-shelf Black Mirror outtakes, and then there’s Upgrade. There are sci-fi parables that know how to meld tech-paranoia with body horror, and then there’s Upgrade. There are films whose performances run the gamut from unbelievably charismatic to “Unclean! Unclean!”, and then there’s Upgrade. There are pulp pleasures that make trekking out to a theater completely worthwhile, and then there’s Upgrade. Leigh Whannell’s hi-fi, lowbrow gem from the House of Blum is exactly the sort of sick, satisfying Grand Guignol genre flick you want smuggled in among the big-ticket summer blockbusters right now. That title works on two levels.
Specifically, however, it refers to what happens to Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) – that name alone! – after he’s suffered a major tragedy and a debilitating post-trauma injury. He’s an analog man in a futuristic digital world, the kind of guy who restores old muscle cars and sells them to Internet billionaires like Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a clammy, bottle-blond amalgamation of Mark Zuckerberg’s social awkwardness and Julian Assange’s dead-eyed creepiness. It’s after our hero sells the young moneymaker a Firebird that the smart car belonging to Trace’s wife (Melanie Vallejo) is cyberjacked and crashed. Out of nowhere, thugs show up. One of them shoots the woman with a handgun – like, an actual gun that has been transplanted into his palm, because again, the future. He also puts a bullet in Grey, leaving him a widower and a quadriplegic.
Months later, Trace is tooling around his house in an electronic wheelchair, feeling like justice will never be served no matter how long Detective Cortez (Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel) reviews surveillance-drone footage of the attack. Then Eron shows up, touting a tiny microchip-ish whatsit he calls Stem – “a new, better brain” – and an offer to install this innovation into the base of Trace’s neck. That’s where the “upgrade” part comes in: This device allows him to move his arms and legs again. It also, we soon find out, has a voice, all the better to point out pertinent details in crime-scene footage and whisper suggestions to its new owner about snooping around possible suspects’ homes. When one such visit goes south, Stem tells his human host: “I need your permission to operate independently.” Permission is granted. And that’s when both Trace and viewers discover that Stem has an attack mode.
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It’s that first fight scene, in which Trace’s body is turned into a herky-jerky weapon of UFC-level destruction and cinematographer Stefan Duscio films in a dementedly dizzying manner and a kitchen knife is put to creative use on someone’s face, that this nasty, brutish movie truly levels up. From there, we are whisked through a whirlwind of set pieces with aesthetics best described as “use more black light!” and blessed with copious amounts of violence, mayhem, a cast of extras that might have been culled from either local dojos or soup kitchens, some wonky techsplaining and an ingenious sense of sadism and fun. It’s also where you first see the benefit of having Marshall-Green, an actor who looks like an off-brand Tom Hardy, in an action-hero role that requires both a salt-of-the-earth relatability and a silent-comedian’s physical grace – two things he proves he has in spades and that play a major part in how well this revenge-thriller-with-benefits works. The man is a rough-and-tumble find. (Someone pair him and The Purge films’ bruiser Frank Grillo in a movie stat.)
And it pays to remember that Whannell is the writer-director who penned the screenplay for the Saw and Insidious movies (he also helmed the latter franchise’s third entry), and knows how to craft horror movies that treat both dread and gore as a currency. By the time Upgrade goes off the rails – and it does indeed unravel in a batshit-spectacular fashion – you still feel like his Siri-goes-psychotic tale has earned its place at the head of the contemporary genre table. This is not Citizen Kane. It’s not even the Citizen Kane of boneheaded crazy-A.I.-meets-vengeance-is-mine movies. But it is so completely itch-scratching, so Dopamine-rush delirious in how works its primal-cinema magic that you find yourself embracing every warts-and-all WTF moment of this techsploitation nightmare along with the highlights. Resistance is futile. High-grade grindhouse glee is your reward.