This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Today: Heart of Stone, on Netflix.
Last Updated: 11.02 PM, Aug 11, 2023
I wonder when Netflix will realise that — like a geeky kid who isn’t cut out for sports, or a dog that isn’t cut out for purring — they just aren’t cut out for slick action thrillers. It doesn’t take an MBA genius to detect that it makes zero sense for streaming platforms to keep making big-budget action spectacles when the only screen we can watch them on is…small. So much of the adrenaline, rhythm, plotting, effects and punch gets muted by default. Not a single stunt lands. The immersive quality is as good as non-existent. All I can hear is money. As of now, it feels like Netflix is using ChatGPT to ‘write’ these incredibly derivative, long and unimaginative movies — the latest of which is Heart of Stone, starring Gal Gadot and Bollywood star Alia Bhatt. At more than two hours, the movie feels like five, and only goes to prove the novelty of Tom Cruise and his stubbornly big-screen spectacles.
The title is a play on the protagonist’s name, Rachel Stone, and her identity as a secret agent for an outfit of international espionage called The Charter, which uses a futuristic artificial intelligence software called ‘The Heart’ to maintain global peace. The irony. Stone is also undercover as a modest MI6 computer specialist, and her colleagues have no idea she is a super-skilled field agent (called the Nine of Hearts) for The Charter. Like nearly every other action movie ever made, this one opens with a mission going wrong in a scenic location. The MI6 team messes things up in the European Alps, and we see Stone shedding her pen-pushing IT persona like a superhero (not named Wonder Woman) wearing her cape and using her secret skillset (like paragliding down a snowy mountain and all) to save the team. They soon discover that a mysterious young hacker named Keya Dhawan (Alia Bhatt) is responsible for the mess. More twists await, Stone is outed, and one of the MI6 team members might be a traitor with a dark past who has hired Keya to track down The Heart for his own world-ruling whims.
It feels like I’ve typed down versions of this premise in film reviews a thousand times before. Naturally, Rachel Stone must become a globe-trotting badass, almost die, and defy her bosses to stop the rogue agent; it can’t be easy to go from the Alps to Lisbon to Western Africa to Iceland and get attacked and outsmarted in different time zones. I like Gal Gadot despite her problematic political stances, but her Goddess-like charm as this foreign-born Hollywood success story is starting to wear off. She is adequate here, a bit inert at times, and kills with that trademark grin of hers, but there’s nothing we haven’t seen earlier in films that solely count on the tokenism of having a female action hero. The writing is incidental. The explosions may as well be the morning commute to work.
There’s also — and now I’ll take a deep sigh — Jamie Dornan, once again playing a devious man who has no qualms beating up and torturing women. Only this time, it’s not BDSM. Some of the set pieces go on forever (especially the Lisbon one), and feel about as exciting as watching the paint dry on a Sunday morning. It takes some level of desensitisation to action as a genre that even the sight of Gadot sprinting across a spaceship that explodes in the atmosphere and then falling through the sky with an errant parachute is…dull. Not once did I want to pause the film to catch my breath (unless you count that Dornan sigh) and let my anxiety subside. Such is the era of excesses. For a film that’s all about a Macguffin called The Heart, it’s fitting that it has the soul of a crowded Excel sheet. One of the challenges of my life is to say this same thing in different ways for every new Netflix actioner, and as is evident, I’m running out of options.
The one bright spot in the film — and I’m not saying this because I’m an Indian film critic or a Bollywood fan craving Western validation — is Alia Bhatt as the hacker. There’s not enough of her of course, and I hate that Keya’s initial villainy is sacrificed as the altar of moral righteousness and female solidarity. (It made me imagine her as an all-out IT baddie — a la Tahir Raj Bhasin in Mardaani — in the YRF Spy Universe). But despite a disappointing character arc, Bhatt is refreshingly authentic. And I mean that in a very specific sense. Unlike other Hindi stars who’ve appeared in Hollywood productions (like Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra, or even Amitabh Bachchan in The Great Gatsby) and felt the burden to represent South Asian culture, Bhatt’s English dialogue is not littered with hybrid accents and linguistic complexes. She speaks the way she usually does, with no put-on twangs, and trusts her natural instincts as a performer to do the rest. She could be this character in a Hindi film and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It may seem like a weird detail to be impressed by, but it can’t be overstated enough.
It makes Bhatt — and by extension, Keya — an equal on the screen, at the level of Gadot or Dornan or anyone else, and not some commercial Diversity Import hoping to impress the First World and attract eyeballs of the Third World. I won’t say it made me “proud,” but it did restore my faith in the cultural honesty of creating. Viewers elsewhere might finally realise that this is how a majority of urban youngsters sound in Indian cities, which takes some doing after Chopra’s (accented) rise to fame in Hollywood. Keya expects the others to understand her rather than changing herself to be understood — comfortable in her own skin, and very much the beating heart in a film of stony mediocrity. It reminded me of the late Irrfan Khan and his eye-catching roles in the West. Everyone admired him because his aura was unadulterated by the urge to punch ‘upward’; he was already an equal in his own eyes. There can be no bigger compliment in terms of a global trajectory, even if it means a trashy action franchise or three.