UPGRADE. Revenge cinema has been enhanced

Known to horror fans as a co-creator of Saw and Insidious, Leigh Whannell faced a significant challenge with Upgrade, but he managed to outshine many action films of recent years.

Mikołaj Lewalski

24 August 2023

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In Upgrade a grieving husband is seeking bloody revenge on his wife’s killers – how many times have we had the chance to witness something like this? How many times have we seen very similar stories? When creating an action film based on these well-worn narrative tropes, it’s worth having something up your sleeve that will distinguish it from the crowd. A prime example of such a production is John Wick, which intrigues with its world-building and dazzles with meticulously choreographed long takes of hand-to-hand combat and gunfights. Thanks to superb choreography (and Keanu Reeves’ commitment), well-selected music, and fantastic set design, we are presented with action cinema that has been embraced by audiences and critics alike with great enthusiasm. Known to horror fans as a co-creator of Saw and Insidious, Leigh Whannell faced a significant challenge, but he managed to outshine many action films of recent years.

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A plot

Like every film of its kind, Upgrade begins with a brief introduction to the world of the characters (in this case, it’s a near-future setting) and the tragedy that turns the protagonist’s orderly life upside down. As a result of an attack by masked criminals, Grey loses all meaning in his existence, and his spirit is shattered. The death of his wife and his resulting disability mercilessly bring the protagonist to his knees and strip away his desire to rise from them. Recognized primarily as “that guy who looks like Tom Hardy,” Logan Marshall-Green convincingly portrays a man who, due to horrific events, has lost any will to live. The scenes following the tragedy effectively lay the groundwork for the protagonist’s future decisions and allow us to understand him well. At a certain point, a fantastic opportunity arises on the horizon in the form of an innovative implant that could help Grey regain control of his own body. Without much hesitation, he opts for the surgery, and shortly thereafter, he is able to walk again. However, it turns out that his cybernetic implant also houses an artificial intelligence, the voice of which Grey can hear in his mind.

Thanks to his new companion, Grey’s perception, knowledge, and analytical skills know no bounds (with the caveat that all this data doesn’t magically appear in his mind and must be verbally communicated to him by Stem). This allows him to embark on a solo quest to find his wife’s murderers. It quickly becomes apparent that the protagonist can surrender complete control of his body to Stem, resulting in incredible combat scenes and the genuine distress of their adversaries in this unusual duo.

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Subtle humor and combat scenes

In these mentioned scenes, the camera work plays a significant role, brilliantly complementing the synthetic nature of Grey’s movements. There is no doubt that Grey’s actions are dictated by precise calculations and situational analysis, rather than human spontaneity and adrenaline. This also showcases Marshall-Green’s excellent acting, as the face observing Stem’s actions still belongs to Grey. He had never had the opportunity to fight someone to the death, let alone kill another person. The fear in his eyes and his attempts to look away from what his own hands are doing serve as a combination of highly successful dark humor and something truly unsettling. Losing control over one’s own body and having it fully taken over by someone else is a perspective that evokes extreme discomfort, especially when the result of another’s actions is grotesquely brutal violence.

However, this is a tangential reflection that does not interfere with the effectiveness and subtle humor of the combat scenes in Upgrade. Particularly bloody combat scenes, it should be added – Whannell’s work doesn’t hold back and joyously celebrates exaggerated violence reminiscent of the Grindhouse duology and action films of the 80s. Fortunately, the achieved effect looks much better than in many contemporary action movies attempting to resurrect the magic of the past. Forget about poorly rendered digital blood splatters that marred even the first Expendables film. Here, despite a very modest budget (between three to five million dollars), a skillful combination of CGI and practical special effects was achieved to create a result that outshines productions with much larger budgets. This applies not only to severed heads – the entire film looks absolutely stunning and constantly amazes with interesting shots and atmospheric neon lighting. The director seems to be well aware of what he can achieve with his budget, making the film never look cheap at any moment.

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Revenge movie Upgrade (ed)

Upgrade not only looks great but also sounds phenomenal. The electronic sound score flawlessly captures the darkness of Grey’s story and fits the visual style of the film and its cyberpunk world-building (fans of the Deus Ex series will be pleased). The neon aesthetic and unapologetic violence will certainly appeal to fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s works, as long as they don’t mind the dark humor, which is something you’d be hard-pressed to find in the works of the Danish director (correct me if I’m wrong in this last aspect).

Upgrade can be confidently recommended even to viewers who have grown tired of revenge movies, as it’s a refreshingly unique take on the genre. The relationship between Grey and Stem alone makes the film more intriguing than most seemingly similar titles, as does the thought-provoking world of the characters. The exposition of the latter could be more extensive, as could the development of the personalities of the other characters, but these are not significant shortcomings. The whole is an extremely satisfying spectacle and an audiovisual feast for the senses – and if halfway through the film you’re convinced you’ve unraveled the whole plot, chances are you’re mistaken, and the excellent ending will cleverly lead you away from your assumptions.