I have quite a bit of fondness for the original Jim Shooter era of Valiant. Growing up on an Army Base in Germany, with my lone supply of comics coming from the shelves at the Stars and Stripes bookstore, , those early Valiants were especially exciting for 10 year old me. I was getting in on a superhero universe at its very beginning! Really, the inventiveness of it all is pretty thrilling even now – Shooter, the most consequential Marvel EiC after Stan the Man, literally created a full line, and for a short time, a really successful one, spinning out of a couple of Gold Key also-rans from his youth. It’d be like me taking Nexus and Reuben Flag and having a go at it (Mike, Steve, Howard; call me!). And to the point, I definitely read some of those old Kevin VanHook and Don Perlin Bloodshot comics, though they hit at a time when my interest was starting to wane with the company, just before it was completely put to rest by a misguided, and perpetually late crossover with Image.
I did try out a few of the 2012 Valiant relaunch products, which I found slickly professional in that “in one eye and out the other” way but remember almost nothing about them, short of the fact that of what I read, I recall the Bloodshot issues by Dwayne Swierczynski and Manuel Garcia to be the ones that grabbed my attention the most – but the details have flittered away like a nanobot restoring my brain back to its pristine state. I have to assume, in the 21st Century Valiant Entertainment’s furious attempt at turning these characters into the next Marvel Studios, the version that wound up in the big screen adaptation of Bloodshot bears a much stronger resemblance to that take on things.
Which is weird, because as much as I remember liking that comic, Bloodshot the film is a struggle to bear.
On its face, you can see the appeal for an action star like Vin Diesel, whose big vehicle in the Fast and the Furious franchise is winding down, to attach himself to a solo superhero starrer like this one. On paper, it’s completely built for his strengths and comes packaged with a script co-written by Arrival’s Eric Heisserer, but in reality it crosses a creakier style of blockbuster with the superhero genre to produce a largely sluggish, CGI overrun mess. Which is a shame, because there’s a core idea within Bloodshot that could make for a really poignant sci-fi tale, it just gets drowned by literally everything else.
Here are the facts of the case, for those unfamiliar: Diesel plays Ray Garrison, a Marine badass that leads an elite squad of equally tough soldiers, sent out to do all kinds of wet-work for the government. He’s got it all! A nice villa in the Italian seaside plus a beautiful wife (Talulah Riley) by his side; but it all comes crashing down when Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell) and his henchmen attack and kidnap the pair in an attempt to dig up dirt on Ray’s superiors. It all ends badly, with Ray and Gina being killed by the “psycho killer” Martin.
But hey, that’s only the first 10 minutes of the film and before the title card even hits. Ray wakes up in the lab of Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), resurrected, but an amnesiac, and enlisted into Harting’s clandestine operation that includes a cadre of other wounded soldiers who receive cybernetic upgrades, including Eiza Gonzalez’s KT and Sam Heughan’s Jimmy. Suddenly though, Martin’s memories come back, and his need for vengeance runs to the fore. But what happens from there, turns things on its head a bit…
And that gets us back to that one really neat premise that I wish held greater court in the script, a moment drenched in, and worthy of, some rather rich science fiction that drops you on your ass as my dad would say, but then it does little else but serve as a vehicle for more scenes of revenge. While I don’t expect a movie called Bloodshot to deliver a rich character piece, so much of it is just a bland nothing. An excuse to insert Diesel into badly shot action sequences, basically stitched together from coverage to a degree where it’s almost impossible to tell what’s happening. And when first time director, David S.F. Wilson isn’t hiding his lack of action acumen behind camera trickery, he relies on CGI “rubbermen” of the CW variety to take care of the rest. There’s an entire scene in the third act that takes place in an elevator where we probably got around only about 3 or 4 shots of actual human beings. That Wilson’s background is mostly rooted in videogames is not much of a shock. It’s too bad I left my PS4 controller at home.
But, if you were hoping that Heisserer’s presence might prove a sparing element here, you’re in for disappointment. Bloodshot actually sports one of the more tone deaf scripts in recent superhero movie memory, with howler lines dropped every other scene. That it also tries to give Diesel a place to flex dramatic muscle that he simply doesn’t have, while being paired with the equally out of place Gonzalez in a number of scenes, the experience becomes rather excruciating. If you told me Gonzalez was reading cue cards from behind the camera, I’d buy it. How we did Pearce so wrong as a people that he has to slum it in stuff like this, I don’t know, but it should be illegal. Lamorne Morris’ Q-like Wilfred Wigans is probably the lone real highlight, with a more knowing wink throughout, but even the one-liners he’s strapped with fall flat.
Action films like this, even if they’re as dumb as a rock, should aim to be fun rollercoasters at their least ambitious. And it’s clear that the team behind Bloodshot wanted to utilize Diesel’s outsized presence to create something that plays like a throwback to those 90’s action spectacles that once were holding up the more profitable end of Hollywood. But these days, it’s the characters that are the thing, and unfortunately Bloodshot leaves almost all characterization at the door. We know about as little about Ray now as we did going in, and even less about the supporting characters. Or why the villain is really doing anything he’s doing at all. Tie those critical storytelling deficiencies with a director that’s in over his head, and you get something that’s surely not what the folks at Valiant expected as their big Hollywood coming out party.
Better luck with Harbinger, hopefully! Maybe Shooter will get a thank you in those credits, at least.