Heart of Stone 2023 Movie Review
There were some impossible calculations made this summer in the making and marketing of Tom Cruise’s seventh mission as Ethan Hunt, the gambit of a gargantuan almost $300m budget yet to prove a decision well-made, the sequel heading for a somewhat destructive financial reckoning. But before the final tally is in, the film’s production company Skydance is hoping for a far easier win with similarly themed thriller Heart of Stone, a potential Netflix franchise-starter, cushioned by lower costs and lower stakes.
There’s also, predictably, a lower level of enjoyment to be had here but given the sky-high bar Cruise has set for the Mission: Impossible series, that doesn’t mean that the streamer’s copycat caper is as unrewarding as one might expect. Netflix’s big-boy actioners have mostly felt more mock than blockbuster, from 6 Underground to The Gray Man to Red Notice, pale imitations of films that were already pale imitations of something else in the first place. But Heart of Stone, as disposable and derivative as it might be, is a notable step up, playing a simple, sturdy game but playing it well, a surer hand gliding us through familiar territory. That hand belongs to British director Tom Harper, who cut his teeth on cinematic shows like Misfits and Peaky Blinders before impressing with crowd-pleasing music drama Wild Rose and baffling with Oscar-bait balloon adventure The Aeronauts. Together with his longtime cinematographer George Steel, he gives it both a sustained jolt of adrenaline and a sleek, glossy sheen often absent on Netflix, where too many washed out films look as if they were shot in murky rooms where someone had just been smoking.
In trying to compete with both the Mission: Impossible and 007 franchises, Heart of Stone does an admirable job attempting to wow us with locations as big as the stunts that take place within them, from parachuting at night in the Alps to a high-speed car chase in Lisbon. It’s effectively sweeping throughout (multiple locations counts for an awful lot these days) if a little hard to vividly remember much of once it’s over.
The Charter is a shadowy organisation of “do-gooders” consisting of agents from all around the world, acting in situations “where governments fail”. Missions are guided by the heart, a fantastical tech system that helps predict outcomes for those on the field. (Need a sudden escape from the bad guys? Here’s the most statistically sound route, etc.) Like a souped-up satnav, it’s an overly relied upon tool that doesn’t allow for spontaneity or independent thinking. Which is a problem for Stone (Gal Gadot), an agent inclined to trust her own instincts over the instructions of a machine, much to the chagrin of mentor and boss Nomad (Sophie Okonedo). She’s undercover within a team of MI6 operatives (including Jamie Dornan and Motherland’s Paul Ready), pretending to be a timid, action-averse techie but when a new threat enters the picture, risking the Charter itself, she is forced to play hero.
It’s all total nonsense that barely warrants a first think let alone a second, but it’s surprisingly propulsive nonsense, packaged with a studio slickness one wouldn’t expect (it’s a great compliment to say a Netflix film doesn’t feel or look like a Netflix film), rattling along with speed and efficiency, rusty formula elevated by one genuinely surprising reveal and an even more surprising cameo from an Oscar-nominated actor.
At its centre, or ahem heart, is Gadot, not the most assured of actors – her risible performance in Death on the Nile was memed for a reason while she was the weakest link in Red Notice, a film made almost entirely of weak links – but a confident action star, selling the demanding physicality of her role here. She’s less convincing when the film offers pause, for emotion or humour, but these moments are at least mercifully short. Her character, like that of Ethan Hunt, is pure cipher, an action figure to be played with rather than a person to be in any way believed, something that works best for her limited register.
Tonally the film can be a little unsure, awkwardly attempting levity when gravity would do (a scene where the group of MI6 agents take a break from work to dance to Lizzo is even sillier than it sounds) and the script’s quippery is never quite as effective as it could be, most smug one-liners landing like stones in a pool. But the action is pitched with far more confidence, never dazzling enough to compete with a Mission: Impossible but delivered with just the right amount of self-aware silliness without turning into absurd Fast and Furious-level parody. In the expanding roster of Netflix action franchises it is closest to The Old Guard (another solid Skydance collaboration) and while this film too would benefit from Charlize Theron as anchor, it’s similarly efficient and even visually superior. Sequels will surely follow and it would take a stony heart not to be just a tad intrigued to see what’s coming next.