Sophie Okonedo, Matthias Schweighöfer, and Alia Bhatt round out the cast in this thrill ride about a secret global peacekeeping agency’s rush to rescue its most valuable asset.
Netflix attempts to compete with the Mission: Impossible franchise with Heart of Stone, an exhilarating spy thriller designed as a showcase for producer and star Gal Gadot to trade superpowers for a more grounded mix of intellect, technological know-how, instinct, and formidable combat abilities. Although a slight improvement over Gadot’s previous Netflix action vehicle Red Notice, the film still feels overly formulaic, assembled from familiar genre tropes. However, it’s an entertaining diversion that should attract sizable viewership, aided by Gadot’s engaging onscreen rapport with co-star Jamie Dornan.
The release timing seems slightly inopportune considering the most recent Mission: Impossible movie, Dead Reckoning, debuted just a month ago and also centers around a laughably dubbed AI super-intelligence, “The Entity,” that villainous factions are plotting to seize.
In Heart of Stone, the omnipotent cyber asset is dubbed “The Heart,” with abilities to hack any global network, control technology, sabotage systems, and even take down aircraft. It’s controlled from a central hub by a quirky technician known as Jack of Hearts (Matthias Schweighöfer), who has one of those movie jobs where he gestures at holograms to summon detailed visual representations of video, data, and statistically calculated odds of mission success or failure. He’s essentially Steve Kornacki with a state-of-the-art tech makeover.
The Heart is the prized asset of the Charter, an underground peacekeeping group of highly-skilled former intelligence agents. Frustrated by their governments’ bureaucratic methods, they have united, utilizing advanced technology to neutralize global menaces.
The unlikely premise of anonymous do-gooders averting worldwide conflicts and saving lives while seeking no credit stems from screenwriters Greg Rucka (who penned the strong Netflix actioner The Old Guard) and Allison Schroeder (head writer on the sturdy crowd-pleaser Hidden Figures).
Adding to the fanciful spy intrigue, the organization is led by four “Kings,” each designated by a different playing card suit. The tough-talking King of Hearts, known as Nomad (Sophie Okonedo), is the key player here, but strategic appearances are also made by her three counterparts: Chinese cyber-expert Clubs (BD Wong), former Russian security chief Spades (Mark Ivanir), and ex-CIA deputy director Diamonds portrayed in a surprise two-scene cameo by an esteemed A-lister sporting an asymmetrical silver bob that evokes an Otto Dix painting of the Swing Out Sister vocalist.
The prolonged pre-titles scene follows an MI6 unit of field agents Parker (Dornan) and Yang (Lusi), transport specialist Bailey (Ready), and new tech officer Rachel Stone (Gadot) as they attempt to apprehend Europe’s most wanted arms dealer Mulvaney (Cilenti), lured out by a high-stakes casino event in the Italian Alps.
The tense mission unfolds at the luxury resort, on the slopes, and in a cable car, not going precisely as planned largely due to Rachel exhibiting unexpected skills, at least to the audience. The high rollers are betting on the real-time body count of a Navy SEALs op, meaning someone has hacked U.S. military encryption. A mysterious woman later revealed as 22-year-old Indian tech genius Keya (Bhatt), surfaces, along with her access to MI6 comms.
Post-Mulvaney, the Brits track Keya to Lisbon, where a near-fatal ambush and relentless chase through old-town streets expose that two MI6 agents are not who they seem. Naturally, the lead assassin is a stylish model type (Kortajarena) with mean eyes, bleached quiff, angry brows, and a need for speed on his motorcycle – the Mediterranean take on Pom Klementieff’s character in Dead Reckoning.
Divulging more plot details would spoil the two big revelations that arise fairly early on. But director Tom Harper also hits the gas on the action as the resourceful Charter agent emerges from cover and works to protect The Heart, then faces near-death challenges trying to retrieve it after it’s seized by the villain, who has enlisted Keya’s vital help. The latter proves less ruthless than expected when her personal agenda emerges and her partner’s callousness gives her serious moral qualms.
Never mind the script’s feeble attempts to supply credible motivation for the baddie so intent on controlling The Heart – called “the ultimate skeleton key” by Keya – and so quick to unleash chaos and death, not to mention dethroning Charter “Kings.” A hasty backstory in war-torn Chechnya doesn’t add up to much, though it provides a grievance against the Charter.
What will engage Netflix’s apparent target audience is the movie’s constant motion as the action zips from Italy to London to Portugal to Senegal and Iceland, propelled by Steven Price’s tense score and ample stunts and explosions.
Naturally, The Heart’s mainframe is kept in the most inaccessible spot – an airship called The Locker, floating 80,000 feet over remote African land. Cue skydiving and aerial daring, including a nasty scuffle atop the airborne Locker, substituting for the usual speeding train. Humor is sparse, but an old-school rotary phone’s usefulness in a tight spot makes for a cute analog joke amidst the hi-tech setting.
As a heroine cut from Ethan Hunt’s mold, Gadot excels, dispatching foes with graceful athleticism yet remaining plausibly vulnerable. Rachel’s bond with her MI6 mates provides some heart, as does her eventual big sister rapport with Keya, though it’s refreshing that this female-fronted actioner doesn’t saddle the protagonist with a romantic interest.
Dornan reveals darker shades beneath his character’s breezy exterior, a total reversal from the devoted husband and father he portrayed in Belfast. The innate appeal of Gadot and Dornan carries the film, with Okonedo bringing no-nonsense authority as the stern but caring Nomad, and solid support from Bhatt, Schweighöfer, Ready, and Lusi.
Shot by George Steel, a frequent Harper collaborator on projects like Wild Rose, The Aeronauts, and Peaky Blinders, the film looks somewhat flat and grainy on a big screen but should play just fine at home.