“Bloodshot” has barely started when Vin Diesel’s crack soldier shoots a few bad guys in Mombasa, then unzips his military gear back at the base to reveal his regulation white-tank-friendly physique. Two gun shows in less than five minutes; the action star is nothing if not economical about delivering what his audience wants.
But with this latest attempt to ignite a superhero universe, in this case adapted from a Valiant Comics series, Diesel seems to be stockpiling franchises like he’s at an all-you-can-eat buffet. He’s Riddick, he’s Xander Cage, he’s Dominic, he’s even Groot, and now he’s hoping there’s room for his one-acting-style-fits-all brute charm to squeeze in Ray Garrison, an elite combat veteran killed in action, then rebooted by Guy Pearce’s tech magnate into a programmable, indestructible warrior, the first of his kind. (Except for all the other resurrected fighting machines that other comics, TV shows and movies have given us.)
It’s not quite the same as Sean Connery holding on to his Scottish accent even when playing a Russian sub commander, a quirk that reeked of old-fashioned, stubborn star machismo. Diesel is still mostly cartoon brawn, a sight-gag slab with just enough winking to never quite bore, even if he also never quite excites.
But the sameness of Diesel’s hulking appeal is a problem when the movie around him can’t goose the entertainment level by reaching either for epic popcorn opera (the “Fast and Furious” movies) or hilarious steroid junk (that last WTF “XXX” movie). “Bloodshot,” which borrows from the team-building action genre, vengeance yarns, cautionary sci-fi and alternate-reality puzzlers before settling into the usual Bayhem-adjacent CGI chaos, is never good enough at any of these elements to set itself apart. That leaves it resembling something not unlike its central character: Frankensteined into being without proper road-testing to determine whether it’s of use to anyone.
After Diesel’s character is captured in the early going by a puffer-coat-and-sneakers-sporting nastypants (Toby Kebbell) who dances and lip-syncs to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” before icing Ray’s wife first, then him, Ray wakes up in a sleek lab. Mysteriously whole again but memory-challenged, he’s enthusiastically tended to by Rising Spirit Technologies research honcho Dr. Emil Harting (Pearce), who informs Ray he’s the future in military might. No more wounded warriors — nanites in Ray’s blood (resembling swarming winged micro-insects when activated) will heal tears and reconstruct tissue instantaneously. Plus, he can now bicep curl hundreds of pounds and punch cars down the street.
Ray, now renamed Bloodshot (which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue), isn’t the only tech-enhanced soldier in the place, either. There’s an ex-SEAL (Sam Heughan, “Outlander”) with new bionic legs, a blinded ex-Army Ranger (Alex Hernandez, “UnReal”) equipped with “ocular prosthetics,” and Ray’s fastest new friend-but-possibly-something-more, Navy swimmer KT (Eiza González, “Baby Driver”), saved from respiratory failure by a fancy, implanted breathing apparatus, but not from looking more like a perfume model than a recovering servicewoman.
Will this be the new A-Team, sent on far-flung missions to right the world’s wrongs? Not if Ray’s going to go rogue and answer the call of his nightmare flashbacks, bolting in the dead of night to hunt down his and his wife’s murderer using the microprocessing power coursing through his new body. While Harting and his crew of tech geeks tear their hair out over their new machine on the loose and driven by revenge, you might wonder why there isn’t some mechanism to just turn Ray off, like a TV remote power button.
It turns out there’s an answer to that question in the screenplay by Jeff Wadlow (“Fantasy Island”) and Eric Heisserer (“Bird Box”), which reveals a surprise in terms of who Ray was and who he is now. It’s a nifty enough scenario-reconfiguring twist that had me reconsidering the full-blown corniness of what already had transpired. When “Bloodshot” finds a sense of humor about its schematics, and the repetitiveness of certain action clichés, it makes you think there’s more up its sleeve than the usual exchanges about controlling one’s destiny and the dangers of mixing technology and greed when both are applied to defense contracting.
But that hoped-for melding of blockbuster thrills and ingenuity — most memorably displayed in “Edge of Tomorrow” — never happens in “Bloodshot,” which follows up its plot realignment with only more ho-hum action filmmaking, Diesel’s continued lumbering way with trite dialogue (“YOU USED ME!”), and the introduction of a socially awkward genius coder (Lamorne Morris) plucked from a pedestrian sitcom.
First-time feature filmmaker Dave Wilson and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret (“Mile 22”) can manipulate the speed of combat scenes all he wants (the stylistic crutch of a slo-mo point of contact is evergreen) but dull choreography, CGI overuse and Cuisinart editing are still the bane of today’s action sequences. And no matter what country’s name is shown in the corner — Hungary, Kenya, Italy, England — you know you’re only ever one place in “Bloodshot”: a C-grade wannabe comics-superhero universe.