One of the most endearing things about Vin Diesel is his apparent ongoing belief that his salad days aren’t behind him yet. In the early 2000s, he was on top of the world, a major new action star with The Fast and the Furious and XXX. His fortunes changed, but he didn’t. The Chronicles of Riddick flopped, but years later, he made another Riddick movie anyway. He left both the Fast and Furious and XXX series, then came back to them. (The former was a more triumphant return than the latter.) He seemed like too stubborn a personality for the MCU, but he’s a loyal mainstay of the Guardians of the Galaxy as the voice of Groot. The Last Witch Hunter didn’t do big business, but a sequel is in the works anyway.
It’s entirely possible that his new movie Bloodshot will also underperform, and that he’ll be working on a follow-up five years from now nonetheless. Diesel’s distinctive physicality and rumbly voice recall an earlier era of action stars, and he seems hellbent on following the Sylvester Stallone path in particular, aligning his slightly loopy sensibilities with as many franchises as possible.
Bloodshot itself doesn’t particularly resemble a Stallone vehicle, though. It’s more like something from Diesel’s first big run at stardom, if he had hooked up with Tony Scott and convinced him to adapt a video game in 2003 or so. This movie isn’t actually from a video game, but director David S.F. Wilson has worked in that world, and his first feature has winking replayability built into its concept. Ray Garrison (Diesel) is the kind of military badass who comes home from top-secret missions with new scars, and tender words for his loving wife Gina (Talulah Riley). He’s also the kind of guy whose loving wife is doomed, because his enemies include a maniac who dramatically approaches him while mincing to the beat of a Talking Heads song. (Guess which one!)
In other words, Ray is a guy in an action movie. (And, given his constant purring over Gina, kind of a Wife Guy, too.) This is even more obvious when he wakes up from his own apparent death with his memory erased. He’s greeted by a scientist (Guy Pearce) who explains that his blood has been replaced by nanites, giving him Wolverine-like powers of instant regeneration. He’s introduced to some fellow super-soldiers, who also have Tony Stark-level technology fused to their bodies. (Bloodshot is based on a Valiant comic; nothing as famous as a Marvel B-lister.)
Ray is initially ambivalent about becoming a de facto superhero, until he bonds with KT (Eiza González), the most sympathetic of the super-soldier group. When he gets flashes of his traumatic memories, he attempts revenge on the parties responsible for Gina’s death. But as the trailers for Bloodshot reveal, this may not be a simple, everyday case of a soldier being brought back from the dead and given superpowers to avenge his dead spouse. There’s a cross between Inception and Memento afoot. (Hence, perhaps, Pearce’s presence.) And if Ray’s backstory and motivations seem a little hacky, and his enemy’s dancing glee feels contrived, maybe it’s because his actions are being scripted. The movie has some fun with this idea, as characters are allowed to complain about clichés, and each other (“he’s such a relentless dick,” one of the other super-soldiers grouses about his driven new colleague), raising the possibility that Gina literally dying inside of a refrigerator is meta-commentary related to a famous comics trope.
This is all a little bit clever. Not terribly clever, but a little bit, and as an action thriller, it takes some time to get going. Bloodshot is more compelling as an ultimate Vin Diesel star text. Ray gets stuck in a cycle of endless action-movie posturing with a bunch of nerdy fantastical touches, a major component of several other Diesel franchises. His stoic, vaguely romantic but seemingly unconsummated appreciation of KT echoes Diesel’s lack of easy romantic chemistry with most of his onscreen sorta-love interests (as well as later-period Stallone stoicism). He even gets an early line acknowledging the toll that can be taken by a couple of decades as an action star: “A body can’t do this forever.”
Diesel seems game to try, though. (It probably helps that he enlists CG for some of his bigger stunts.) If Bloodshot has a discernible theme, it’s about expressing autonomy, something Diesel surely does every time he chooses Riddick or witch-hunting over a more outwardly sensible, potentially durable project. It’s a shame, then, that this movie doesn’t go fully trippy with its nanites, augmented realities, and simulated memories. It’s more intermittent than that: The frantic cutting during the various fights rises just up to the level of coherence, but never reaches any kind of grace or visual poetry.
Lamorne Morris is on hand to perform vintage 1990s-style comic relief as an English hacker named Wilfred Wigans, but he’s often isolated from the rest of the cast. The movie looks a little like a lost Tony Scott project, but not quite enough — the style isn’t as tactile. Most of its ridiculous conviction comes from Diesel. He’s given plenty of better performances, but here he’s especially convincing in the role of a guy who legitimately believes he has nothing better to do.
Bloodshot opens in wide release on March 13.