“You don’t have to have a history to have a future,” Guy Pearce’s Dr. Emil Harting says to Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel), the titular hero of director David S.F. Wilson’s Bloodshot. Garrison is a soldier whose shattered body has been restored to life by Harting via microscopic robots called “nanites” that all but replaced Garrison’s blood. With enhanced strength, speed, durability and healing powers, Garrison is all but indestructible–yet his memories are the one thing he cannot seem to retrieve.
But Bloodshot does, of course, have a history as one of the flagship titles of Valiant Comics, a long independent publisher that created its own universe of heroes and villains as counter-programming for those tired of the usual DC and Marvel suspects. Yet while various incarnations of Valiant have been around for better than 30 years, its characters and their backstories have not quite entered the zeitgeist like titans such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.
That gives this first Valiant Comics adaptation both a disadvantage and an opportunity: since the vast majority of the public has no idea who Bloodshot is, the filmmakers (which include former Valiant CEO Dinesh Shamdasani as a producer) don’t have to worry about slavishly following a storyline or canon that both casual and diehard fans may know by heart. For a while, Bloodshot toys with not just interesting conceptual ideas (albeit familiar ones to sci-fi fans) but with a sort of meta playfulness that allows it to poke gentle fun at its own genre before settling tediously back into those tired tropes.
The movie’s first act exemplifies the initial approach: We first meet Garrison as he defies orders and single-handedly takes down a generic terrorist cell on some generic unnamed mission. Cut to his return home to his beautiful (and unaffordable in real life) villa in Italy and perfect wife Gina (Talulah Riley), with Garrison promising that he “always comes back.” You know what that means: mercenaries led by dancing villain Martin Axe (an over-caffeinated Toby Kebbell) invade the house and kidnap Ray and his wife, with the latter murdered before her husband’s eyes. Only then is Garrison apparently snuffed out.
But Ray wakes up in the high-tech belly of Rising Spirit Technologies, led by the avuncular yet slippery Dr. Harting and staffed by some of his previous experiments in transhumanism. Garrison, however, is the first to be brought all the way back from death, even if he doesn’t even know his own name at first. As soon as the memory of what happened comes flooding back, however, he storms out on a mission of revenge–and soon learns that the life he believed he was leading is not what he thought.
This is where Bloodshot becomes interesting, as it explores the themes of enhanced human physiology and the question of free will. Is a superhero really a superhero if someone else is pulling his or her strings? In one amusing scene, it’s suggested that the programmer who has screwed with Ray’s memories has been watching too many movies. Moments like that, as well as a handful of visually striking sequences (such as a battle in a moodily lit tunnel amidst plumes of flour from a smashed truck), intermittently elevate Bloodshot and keep it somewhat more absorbing than standard comic fare.
Once the movie lays out all its cards, however, it deflates. First-time director Wilson manages to keep the action lively, but as key characters fulfill their expected arcs, and the narrative bends back into a more traditional shape, Bloodshot becomes more of the generic superhero-action fodder that it seemed to be initially commenting on.
That’s when more of the story’s derivative nature comes to the forefront, with echoes of Terminator, RoboCop, Iron Man, and others all bouncing off each other. Instead of the world being fleshed out, it constricts, and the movie only seems to have around 10 people in it. As the RST squad tasked with reining in Bloodshot as he goes rogue, Eiza Gonzalez (Baby Driver), Sam Heughan (Outlander), and Alex Hernandez (The Son) all do their best with thinly sketched characters who, in the case of the first two, seem derived from Black Widow and a bad boy War Machine. Which is a shame since an unusual underwater martial arts sequence featuring Gonzalez early on hints at both a deeper character and a more ambitious visual sense from its director. But a feeling of “been there, done that” hangs over the third act’s climactic confrontations.
As for the star, whether he’s playing Riddick, Dom Toretto, or now Bloodshot/Ray Garrison, Vin Diesel is always Vin Diesel. The voice either rumbles or roars, the physical presence is imposing, and the range rarely goes too far in one direction. There are moments of vulnerability and uncertainty here that are a bit off the usual path for Vin, but otherwise he’s as implacable as ever, and you’re either on board with his style at this point or you’re not.
Can Bloodshot launch a Valiant Cinematic Universe, and can Vin carry it on his always impressive shoulders? Aside from the question of which studio owns which rights (Valiant seems to have split its canon between Sony and Paramount at the moment, hence no teases or post-credits scenes referencing the line’s famous Harbinger Wars), Bloodshot may not have enough of the flair that occasionally pokes through to set it apart from the more good-humored MCU or the grandiosity of whatever Warner Bros. is calling its DC film franchise this week. For now, Bloodshot’s future is as murky as his past.
Bloodshot is out in theaters this Friday, March 13.