A movie hero gets unplugged from the web of grand illusion he’s been living in, then dunked into the reality behind the façade. That’s what happened in “The Matrix,” when Keanu Reeves’ Neo woke up to learn that he’d been trapped in a narcotizing dream world. It happens, once again, in “Bloodshot,” a derivative but catchy pulp action superhero head trip about a U.S. Marine, Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel), who gets killed and brought back to life in a newly enhanced and indestructible form. He goes on a vengeful murder mission, hunting down the scoundrel who killed his wife, but even this payback odyssey isn’t what it seems — it’s the creation of forces out to control him.
If you’re part of the audience that goes to see “Bloodshot,” you may experience your own version of that pleasingly disorienting unplugged feeling. Here we are, once again, signing on for a paranoid kinetic fantasy cobbled together out of the blockbuster sci-fi elements of the past. Watching the movie, we think we know what’s real and what’s not. But “Bloodshot” is here to tell you, “Let go of those earlier movie illusions. Embrace the new model! It’s the only kicking-ass-through-the-looking-glass spectacle you’ll need.”
What gives “Bloodshot” its baseline jolt of effectiveness is that we aren’t just watching Garrison caught up in his programmed experience of virtual reality; we’re living it right along with him. In the opening sequence, he leads a combat rescue mission in Kenya, and shortly afterwards gets taken prisoner in a scene so movie-ish that we’re not entirely sure whether it’s meant to be stupido or meta. A bad guy, Martin Axe (Tony Kebbell), shimmies into a meat locker to the ominous bop of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (his dance moves are pure Michael Madsen from “Reservoir Dogs”) and once there proceeds to threaten Garrison with executing his wife, Gina (Talulah Riley), right in front of him.
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“Bloodshot” is based on the Valiant Comics character who first appeared in 1992, and this is one case of a sci-fi comic-book amalgam that’s built like a droid. The movie recycles so many old familiar tropes that ticking off the references — notice I didn’t say rip-offs — that are stitched into its DNA is actually part of what’s entertaining about it.
In an unnamed metropolis of darkly gleaming globalist skyscrapers, Garrison wakes up in a laboratory run by the so-effetely-officious-you-know-he’s-up-to-something Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). Garrison is alive, but only after having been killed. The big news is that he’s been enhanced by nanotechnology. His bare fists can now pound through anything from a punching back to a concrete column. Any wound he suffers will instantly heal, since his bloodstream now consists of buggy metallic nanites that repair flesh on contact. His brain has become a computer that can scrape and analyze data in a millisecond. As for his identity, he can scarcely remember his name, let alone his past. But he’s still every inch Vin Diesel — the pecs, the ‘tude, the syrupy insolent growl — which in a movie like this one counts as all the identity you need.
A generation or two ago, we might have oohed and aahed at the details of Garrison’s super-bruiser invincibility. Now, though, we just look at him and think: Yep, he’s Jason Bourne crossed with the Six Million Dollar Man crossed with The Thing from “The Fantastic Four,” with flesh that heals like the Terminator’s and a killing-machine purposefulness that’s just as gloweringly hellbent.
Commandeering a Gulfstream jet, which he pilots to Budapest, Garrison loses no time tracking down Martin Axe, who he traps him in a tunnel by crashing a delivery truck that coats everything in snowy baking flour. The combat scene that follows is a humdinger, climaxing with the image of Garrison getting half his face blown off in bullet-time, the torn flesh instantly repairing itself. The director, David S.F. Wilson (it’s his first feature), has a background in visual effects, and where that shows is in how he laces them into the action. It’s ballistic magical realism.
To me, what’s always been silly about the perpetual debate as to whether Harrison Ford is, in fact, playing a replicant in “Blade Runner” is that you can watch the film 100 times to parse its clues, yet the issue remains almost entirely abstract. “Blade Runner” is a singular achievement, but it might have been even more viscerally effective if it had a touch of the what-is-reality? staging that animates “Bloodshot.” Flexing his powers, Garrison has been duped in ways he can’t imagine. He’s a programmed assassin who doesn’t know it.
In addition to Dr. Harting, who boasts a retro-fitted Strangelove arm, there are several other key characters, like the sneering machine-man Jimmy Dalton (Sam Heughan), with his sprouting limbs of metal, and the coolly ambiguous KT (Eiza González), who is working for Harting but starts to shift her sympathies. The supporting actor who comes close to stealing “Bloodshot,” though, is Lamorne Morris, who as the genius coder Wilfred Wigans puts a merry spin on the archetype of the babbling hacker. He plays Wigans like a London DJ hosting a party in his head.
Of course, no one is about to steal this movie from Vin Diesel, who gives a ferociously committed pummeling-his-way-out-of-the-virtual-mirage performance. He looks, more than ever, like Mr. Clean fused with Adam Sandler, but that’s part of his action charisma, which in “Bloodshot” is at full boil. His combat moves are lithe and fierce, fusing brains and brawn; the climactic sequence, a duel on a skyscraper’s exoskeletal elevator, earns every rousing moment. “Bloodshot” is a trash compactor of a comic-book film, but it’s smart trash, an action matrix that’s fun to plug into.