Netflix Does Its ‘Best Mission: Impossible’ Impression with ‘Heart of Stone’
Netflix has long been on the hunt for action franchises. The crunch and grind of Extraction has worked out pretty well, and another Old Guard film is in the offing. But the strategy didn’t pan out as well for Bright, or The Gray Man, or any number of other projects that were meant to enthuse audiences about a potential series. Partly because, well, those movies weren’t very good. (The Gray Man is forging ahead anyway, though I’d presume the returns will be diminishing.)
Let’s see what happens with Heart of Stone (August 11), a livelier-than-the-Netflix-norm action caper that is, rather shamelessly, attempting a Mission: Impossible. Directed by Tom Harper—the man behind both music drama Wild Rose and The Aeronauts, the ballooning documentary about the worst day of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’s life—Heart of Stone has a pep in its step, a sureness of tone and purpose that already puts it ahead of much of its brethren. If any of these intended franchise starters has a real chance of enduring success, maybe it’s this one.
The film, written by Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder, apes the M:I series’s geographical sweep and eye-popping stunt work, though a lot of the physical stuff seems heavily aided by computer graphics. (Star Gal Gadot is perhaps not as intent on sacrificing herself at the altar of entertainment as is Tom Cruise.) But Heart of Stone does still manage some visceral thrills, many of them staged in real locations: Lisbon, Iceland, a Senegalese desert, the Italian Alps. Harper actually interacts with these locations; they are not mere static backdrops for uninspired action.
Also like the M:I films, Heart of Stone grapples with the nature of clandestine power, its uses and its drawbacks. The plotting is not as complex as, say, Dead Reckoning’s world-eating AI narrative, but Heart of Stone has at least one or two extra layers to keep things interesting. A pair of twists give a welcome bounce to the film, though I do wonder if this first entry has so exhausted its world’s tricks that there won’t be much more to add in any hoped-for sequels.
It’s difficult to describe the plot of the film without giving away one of those twists, but the basic gist is that Gadot plays Rachel Stone, an intelligence officer who finds herself in a get-the-tech chase involving a hyper capable computer program (sort of) and a cabal of ethically shaded baddies. Jamie Dornan, he of the Irish lilt and bedroom eyes, plays a member of Rachel’s team, with whom Rachel has gotten too close—ill-advisable for someone with such a dangerous higher purpose. Rising Indian film star Alia Bhatt plays a clever antagonist with recognizably human dimensions—her morals are complicated, as a proper villain’s should be.
While there is some of the expected Netflix tinniness in the look of Heart of Stone, Harper wrestles some practical immediacy out of the digital maw. As an ambulance races down a snowy mountain, it seems the vehicle is actually there, on a snowy mountain. Lisbon looks cobbly and grimy and real. That may sound like faint praise, but when you consider how much CGI is relied on elsewhere in the film, any sense of true place and texture feels like a victory. Even the apparently heavily faked scenes—like a mad dash off of an exploding blimp—are more carefully rendered than what has become the standard.
As a lead performer, Gadot is perhaps a little flat, as ever. But she sells the action well enough, and is complemented by appealing turns from Bhatt; from Sophie Okonedo as Rachel’s handler; and from Netflix mainstay Matthias Schweighöfer, who has to do a lot of fake Minority Report-esque swiping of an enormous, spherical digital screen and does so rather convincingly. Heart of Stone is thoughtfully curated—at least, for a movie of its ilk—which could bode well for its franchise potential.
Not that we need a sequel. The pleasure of Heart of Stone really comes from the big reveal that arrives within the first 20 or so minutes; after that, it’s merely an engaging, competent action movie. The lore established in the film—involving a shadowy, supposedly altruistic group of extra-governmental spooks who use playing cards as code names—isn’t as compelling as Ethan Hunt’s IMF, hard as Heart of Stone might try to reach those heights. Still, between this mythology and, say, the prospect of another Gray Man, I would choose Rachel and her shifty allegiances any day. Or maybe that’s just the dog days of August talking, and I’m holding Heart of Stone to a pretty lax standard. Well, whatever. The movie is fun, which could be all we need right now. Let’s do it again next summer.