Everyone wants to be the next Mission: Impossible. Everyone thinks they can be the next Mission: Impossible. And why wouldn’t you? It is the best action franchise in the whole wide world and is helmed by a star, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, who not only does the most mind-boggling stunts but also pushes his cast and crew to the limits of what humans can do. But that’s the thing; everyone is willing to look like the next M:I franchise without putting in the legwork. Just take a gander at Red Notice, The Gray Man, Ghosted, Army of Thieves, Citadel, and the Jack Ryan series. You’ll see that all of them are going through the motions, but none of them are doing anything substantial enough to set themselves apart from Mission. The only one that did is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. So, how well does Heart of Stone fare in this matter? Spoiler alert: not very well.
Tom Harper’s Heart of Stone, which has been written by Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder, opens with MI6 agents Parker, Yang, Bailey, and Stone pursuing Europe’s most wanted arms dealer, Mulvaney, in the mountains of Italy. The operation goes wrong as a hacker known as Keya Dhawan announces her presence, thereby forcing the team to improvise on the spot. Stone, pretending to be an inept field agent, hangs back while the rest of the team tries to take Mulvaney to safety. When she realizes that no one is around, she reveals to the audience that she is a part of a covert group known as the Charter, which is divided into four groups: Hearts, Clubs, Spades, and Diamonds. They infiltrate every known intelligence agency and secretly “help” them stop terrorist activities. Their greatest weapon is The Heart, which is an A.I. (artificial intelligence) program that has access to so much information that it can technically predict the future. So, of course, Keya is after it because she wants to use it for her personal revenge plans.
It’s truly wild to see A.I. being used for “ethical surveillance” in Heart of Stone right after watching Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One. In that film, Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen essentially turned the A.I. into a classic movie monster and gave it an ominous-sounding name, i.e., The Entity. They made it incredibly clear that they believe if any kind of A.I. is given the keys to the world, it’s eventually going to take an anti-human stance. And that has been the trend in movies, starting from The Terminator to Eagle Eye, Minority Report, Upgrade, and The Matrix; the list just goes on. So, a film streaming on a platform that has heavily advocated for the use of A.I. for editing and writing is on brand and yet wild! Yes, yes, they try to underscore the importance of physical, hands-on, on-the-ground work. But the writers also highlight that the A.I. can aid them because it is an important tool. It’s the same rhetoric that pro-A.I. idiots use to obfuscate their lack of skill or intellect. A.I. being used for determinism, surveillance, and profiling of citizens was, is, and always will be unethical in nature, and any human or piece of media that says otherwise is going to end up in my bad books, period.
Apart from this very flimsy take on artificial intelligence, surveillance, and revenge, Heart of Stone doesn’t really have anything to say that we haven’t heard before. Governments treating soldiers as expendable weapons and replacing them with someone newer and better, thereby turning said expendable soldiers into villains, is a tale as old as time. We have seen it in Skyfall and, more recently, in Pathaan. But given how we are in a time where new narratives are hard to come by, I could’ve given it a pass if the writers made the effort of giving the aforementioned characters anything that’s synonymous with the word “memorable.” Every single one of them is painfully generic. They don’t have a single conversation or interaction that makes them impressionable in any way. Exposition is a staple of these spy-action films, and it’s almost unavoidable. It becomes noticeable when it is very badly written, and I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the exposition in the film is indeed very badly written. In addition to all that, the film commits yet another unforgivable mistake by making the act of jumping from one country to another, which is also commonly done in spy-action films, feel boring.
I have no doubt about the fact that Heart of Stone‘s crew physically went to all the locations that are shown in the film to shoot all the action. To be honest, the action direction and stunt departments have done a phenomenal job of delivering two pretty interesting chase sequences. I really like the opening pursuit involving a glowing parachute and a lot of drone shots. However (and this is a big “however”), I have my doubts about the cast’s presence in those cities and countries, especially for the action-heavy stuff. Well, I suspect they were in a room with green screens, and if I can be optimistic, they were in The Volume (one of those sound stages surrounded by massive LED screens) for the dialogue scenes in an external setting. For example, Stone and Keya are forced to land in a desert in West Africa, and it’s painfully obvious that Gal Gadot and Alia Bhatt aren’t in an actual desert. The lighting, the framing, the restricted movement of the characters, and the body doubles give it all away. And every time Gal Gadot gets on or in a vehicle, it becomes even more obvious that she is in front of a green screen or some kind of rear projection situation.
Why? Why does this keep happening with every American action franchise that’s not Mission: Impossible, Fast and Furious, or John Wick? The South Korean, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and French film industries have been consistent when it comes to respecting the genre and prioritizing the quality of the action. Britain’s Scott Adkins, Scotland’s Gerard Butler, Australia’s Chris Hemsworth, and South Africa’s Charlize Theron have done a decent job of injecting authenticity into the action films they’ve touched. But Gal Gadot has been in Netflix’s Red Notice and Heart of Stone, and they are abysmal. You can say it comes down to the capability of the director, and that’s true in this case. Tom Harper is not really good when it comes to directing action sequences. George Steel’s cinematography and Mark Eckersley’s editing are fine. Steven Price’s score tries to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he fails. However, I think the actors’ commitment to doing all or most of their own stunts and fights is at fault here. Insurance or pushback from producers can be an issue. I mean, that’s why most action stars produce their own films so that they can decide for themselves. Gal Gadot is a producer on this film, though, and yet she and her co-stars are hardly front-and-center during the action-heavy moments.
When it comes to acting, I think it’s about time we unanimously agreed that Gal Gadot is not a good actress. Her dialogue delivery is bad. I know some people on the internet tried to convince the rest of us that we were too averse to acknowledging her emotional range because of her accent. Trust me, that’s not the case. I have seen a lot of different international films, heard a lot of different accents, and seen a lot of diverse and expressive faces, and Gal Gadot is irredeemably bad. The hair and make-up artists can only do so much to hide that fact, but after a certain point, her lack of talent becomes very evident. Alia Bhatt doesn’t get to flex any of her skills, sadly. She has talent and is capable of crafting unforgettable characters. But her collaborations with Mahesh Bhatt and Ayan Mukerji proved that she is incapable of elevating the material if it’s below average or plain terrible, and her work with Tom Harper has joined this not-so-glorious list. Jamie Dornan is a good actor, but this isn’t it. Matthias Schweighöfer is better in Oppenheimer than he is in this film. Sophie Okonedo is severely underutilized, and the same can be said about Jing Lusi and Paul Ready.
In conclusion, Heart of Stone is a poorly made action. If you want to watch something like Mission: Impossible, just watch any of the Mission: Impossible films. Why waste your time on a copycat? I’m well aware of the phenomenon where Netflix heavily promotes a film that they want to turn into a franchise and claims that it has been watched by billions of people in order to justify the greenlighting of a sequel. And I’m sure it’s going to happen with this one too. But I am also wondering if that pattern of behavior is going to change due to the reality check streaming platforms and production houses are getting, thanks to the strikes in Hollywood. Maybe this time, they have to depend on genuine word-of-mouth and critical acclaim instead of pretending that “hours watched” is the same as actual, tangible “demand” for more Heart of Stone movies. Anyway, that’s just my opinion. Please watch Heart of Stone on Netflix, form your own opinion, and feel free to share your thoughts with us.