If there’s one thing to know about MI6 agent Rachel Stone (Gal Gadot), it’s that she’s meant to stay in the van. In Tom Harper’s new action thriller “Heart of Stone,” there are spies in the field and spies who drive, but some spies are just supposed to sit behind a computer screen reading fast-scrolling lines of code and hacking into mainframes. It’s possible this seems a little implausible, knowing what we know about star Gal Gadot’s star persona, and that’s because it is: Rachel Stone of MI6 is not who she says she is.
Stone really belongs to another spy organization — the Charter — designed to correct the wrongs of government-affiliated spy organizations by doing the same work only under the guidance of an AI tool known as the “Heart.” When Stone is out in the field she’s given pathways of most probable success, forbidden from taking any other pathway, even if it feels more just or doable. In her ear during any given MI6 mission are the Jack (Matthias Schweighöfer) and King (Sophie Okenodo) of Hearts. Stone, if you haven’t guessed, is the Nine of Hearts.
The Charter is no fun, and under their employment, Stone isn’t allowed to have any either: no friends, no partying, no gallivanting with her peers at MI6. That’s a shame, too, because they seem almost too fun: there’s nerdy driver and cat dad Bailey (Paul Reddy), slick sharpshooter Yang (Jing Lusi), and buff hunk Parker (Jamie Dornan). Stone prefers them to her Charter comrades, but her mission supersedes anything they’re up to. When a gig in the Alps goes south — their comms are overhauled by a brilliant young hacker, Keya (Alia Bhatt), Stone is forced to dovetail and work on her own terms.
The Heart, the latest of silly tech MacGuffins to make its way into action movies, is under attack. It’s a very valuable thing for anyone to have: the Heart can predict a mission’s success, sure, but it’s also a technological skeleton key that can cause relentless, unclear havoc. It turns off the lights. It blows up buildings. It looks like a little jewel inside of a tube. The Charter keeps it floating up in the sky to avoid theft.
“Heart of Stone” has the misfortune of arriving on Netflix soon after “Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” which also involves a larger-than-life action protagonist going up against a computer. While the Heart isn’t the villain, per se, of “Heart of Stone,” the Charter’s overreliance on AI and algorithmic probability gets the better of them. Tech may not have all the answers, even if the tech itself is always telling you it does. The lesson feels too little too late, both for
Stone and the viewer.
“Heart of Stone” might have had the power to override its tedious tech commentary were it in the hands of a star who was capable of giving much more than an algorithmic performance herself. Gadot works as Wonder Woman in part because that role requires her to play both superhuman and of another world entirely. Though secret agents and superspies aren’t exactly regular civilians, Gadot can’t bring a necessary warmth or smooth coolness to the role.
The twists and turns of “Heart of Stone” are easy to predict, and there’s little dramatic tension to keep a viewer interested. The action is choppy and unoriginal, equally fearful of blood and overly reliant on gun violence. The fighting occurs in dark hallways or dim apartments, making it difficult to see who’s doing what where. Gadot has made a name for herself as an action hero, and a film like this refuses to let her fail, even for a second. It is a performance entirely without humility or irony. For all that she is beaten up and thrown around, she never escapes with more than a bloodied cheek — even her bangs stay intact.
It’s almost shocking her MI6 team can’t figure out she’s not one of them — everything she says feels like a lie, unnatural and stilted. Opposite Dornan, playing both cocky and desirable (sometimes one in the same), there is little chemistry in any emotional direction. The strongest in the film are Schweighöfer and Okonedo, but they are relegated to standing in the center of the room and futzing with green-screen technology and barking orders.
The Heart is known as a “general AI,” according to VFX Supervisor Mark Breakspear, which means it can hone and develop any skill. This loose definition could also apply to “Heart of Stone,” which feels as though it was mastered by a computer for a computer.
Though it ticks all the boxes, there is a lack of surprise and originality. All that could feel fun or fresh about it — cool locations, a devious MacGuffin — is taken from somewhere else, jumbled and repurposed for the film’s intention. “Heart of Stone” hardly comes to a conclusion about its own technology, its overall message incoherent and inconclusive. The end sets itself up, perhaps, for a sequel, but maybe they ought to reshuffle and start again.