Alia Bhatt in Heart Of Stone. (courtesy: YouTube)
The heart referred to in the title of this Netflix film isn't in a human bosom. It is spelled with a capital H and is a powerful AI-fuelled weapon that can hack anything, anywhere and unleash chaos and panic, as it inevitably does in the run-up to the climax of Heart of Stone.
Where did we last come across an AI device this dangerous? In Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning - Part One, of course. But that was a Tom Cruise tentpole. Heart of Stone is not quite as humongous in scale and ambition and is far less pulse-pounding despite being a string of big action sequences.
Gal Gadot, one of the film's producers, plays a MI6 tech support operative who dives into a risky mission to prevent "the Heart" from falling into the wrong hands. She drives Heart of Stone with panache. But this is Alia Bhatt's film, too, and the Mumbai actor steals a bit of the Wonder Woman star's thunder. When the two duel onscreen, it makes for a delightful duet.
Heart of Stone, directed by Tom Harper (The Aeronauts, Peaky Blinders and the mini-series War & Peace), is a female-led action movie that does nothing that could be described as radically different. In fact, it mimics other films of the genre and works with familiar pieces.
The plot has not one, not two but three kickass female agents who work for the Charter, a global peacekeeping agency that operates in the shadows. Besides Gadot's Rachel Stone are her mentor-handler Nomad (Sophie Okonedo) and livewire field agent Theresa Yang (Jing Lusi).
They come up against Keya Dhawan (Bhatt), a hacker girl with roots in Pune. She is the one they are looking for because she holds the key to the Heart.
The women of the fast-paced thriller form a multiracial sorority that imparts to Heart of Stone a sparkle that occasionally serves to paper over what it lacks by way of originality. And it certainly helps that both Gadot and Bhatt strike it rich when their paths cross.
In the opening moments of Heart of Stone, the MI6 team is in the Italian Alps to extract an arms dealer from a casino. The man has not been seen public for three years and, if captured, is expected to be an asset, a fountain of inside of info, for the Charter.
Stone is repeatedly advised not to step out of the van driven by fellow agent Max Bailey (Paul Bailey). She infiltrates the ski lodge with the aim of hacking into the security system's encryption key while field agent Parker (Jamie Dornan) goes after the target.
Plans go awry and the operation does not deliver the intended result. Back in London, Nomad gives the team a piece of her mind for botching things up. The action shifts to Lisbon where Keya is expected to attend the opening of a club. Once again, an unpleasant surprise lies in wait for Stone. It changes the game completely.
A spy thriller usually kicks off with a dangerous mission in war-torn and geopolitically sensitive region of the world where a betrayal within the ranks or an ill-advised move causes a cock-up. Heart of Stone makes a departure from norm by staging the opening in snowy, high altitude European location.
At one point in Heart of Stone, faced with an unanticipated situation, one the Charter agents says: "That's old school." Much later in the film, scripted by novel Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder (co-writer of Hidden Figures), a good old rotary telephone is fished out as a last resort, dusted and put into use when the ventilation and communications in a bunker in London are blocked. In the AI era, the old and nearly obsolete can still come in handy when the chips are down.
In many other equally apparent ways, Heart of Stone falls back on tropes that feel time-worn although at the heart of the film is an all-out struggle for control over a highly sophisticated AI contraption that can spell disaster for the world if enemy forces wrest control of it.
Rachel and Keya, engaged in a battle of wits, have something in common. Both are lone rangers who have the chops not to be deflected by issues that are external to the personal compulsions that drive them. But neither is devoid of emotions. Each has her reasons for doing what she doing. Their back stories reveal why.
The action spans across several locations - England, Portugal, Senegal, Iceland - and across the skies as well. Stone, with or without her team, is chased down bustling city streets, desolate snowy landscapes or life-threatening deserts. It is in many ways a thriller that resorts to hackneyed means and yet manages to come up flashes of freshness because it places women in the thick of the action.
As the wronged and the shortchanged square off against each other, Heart of Stone explores what the lure of power, control and domination does to men who, as Stone says, cannot resist resorting to threats and violence when they are within striking distance of tools that can do the world some good.
Jamie Dornan, who has the juiciest of the male roles in Heart of Stone, is terrific. This is a Gal Gadot show. She plunges headlong into her role and ensure that even in the most routine of situations there is a spark.
In Hindi films, Alia Bhatt has handled infinitely more demanding roles with great success. In her international debut, she isn't pushed all that much beyond her comfort zone. But the poise that she brings to the table as a conflicted young woman driven as much by her own heart as by "the Heart" that she must retain control of at all costs is impressive.
Heart of Stone is a smart thrill-a-minute genre exercise that is elevated appreciably by the striking quality of George Steel's camerawork. The cinematography often scales John Wick levels of proficiency and impact. The stunts, too, are extraordinary well mounted.
There is so much going for Heart of Stone, at least in terms of its essential components, that it is a tad surprising and disappointing that one is eventually left with a nagging sense that the film is not quite all that it could have been.
Gal Gadot, Jamie Dornan, Alia Bhatt, Matthias Schweighofer