Heart of Stone is the Rare Worthwhile Netflix Blockbuster

Gal Gadot's new thriller is a surprisingly endearing spy romp.

Gal Gadot as Rachel Stone in Netflix's 'Heart of Stone'
Inverse Reviews

“So this is what Citadel wants to be.”

That’s one of the first thoughts this writer had while watching the opening setpiece of the new big-budget Netflix blockbuster, Heart of Stone. Like the Russo Brothers’ lifeless, dead-on-arrival Amazon Prime series from earlier this year, Heart of Stone focuses on the agents of a secret, technologically advanced spy force that operates outside the confines and control of any governmental intelligence agency. Like Citadel, it strives to recapture the same goofy, pulpy tone as the James Bond movies of old. The only difference? Heart of Stone is actually fun.

That may come as a shock, and for good reason. When it comes to its wannabe summer blockbusters, Netflix’s track record has been particularly lackluster. The Gray Man was an utter mess and ranks as one of the few genuinely bad movies that Ryan Gosling has made in recent years. Heart of Stone star Gal Gadot’s 2021 blockbuster, Red Notice, meanwhile, remains a perfect example of how bad even $200 million can look if the people involved don’t know how to use the money at their disposal.

All of this is to say that Heart of Stone shouldn’t work. On paper, it seems like nothing more than another calculated, algorithm-based addition to Netflix’s ever-growing, increasingly middling content library. It doesn’t take the same number of shortcuts as so many of the streamer’s other titles, though, and, perhaps most surprising of all, there are moments throughout Heart of Stone when one can feel an actual pulse beating, if weakly, beneath its surface.

Heart of Stone is one of the few Netflix blockbusters that isn’t a total miss.

Robert Viglasky/Netflix

Directed by Wild Rose and The Aeronauts filmmaker Tom Harper, Heart of Stone follows Rachel Stone (Gal Gadot), a seemingly reserved MI6 agent who is, in all actuality, a highly capable undercover spy for The Charter, a secret intelligence organization comprised of independent spies from all over the globe. Overseen by a handful of powerful, veteran global intelligence officers, The Charter uses a system of “perfect” artificial intelligence known as “The Heart” to not only advise its agents on the best possible decision for every outcome, but also help the organization achieve its goal of saving as many lives around the world as possible.

Rachel’s fellow MI6 team members, Parker (Jamie Dornan), Yang (Jing Lusi), and Bailey (a scene-stealing Paul Ready), don’t know any of this. As far as they’re concerned, Gadot’s MI6 operative is nothing more than the least capable member of their team, one who puts both her own safety and theirs in jeopardy whenever she steps out of their surveillance vans. That all changes when Rachel’s real identity is revealed and The Charter comes under attack from a pair of operatives, including a prodigious hacker named Keya Dhawan (Alia Bhatt), intent on taking control of The Heart for themselves.

To say much more about Heart of Stone would be to not only spoil many of its surprises but also lessen the impact of its best sequence, which begins near its 40-minute mark and then climaxes around the film’s midpoint. The sequence in question begins with a sudden, explosive ambush on Rachel’s MI6 team and eventually evolves into a car chase that is shockingly well-paced, staged, and cut. Behind the camera, Harper proves to be a capable action director, though, the effectiveness of his filmmaking varies depending on how much CGI he’s forced to use.

Heart of Stone works best when its action and emotions feel grounded and real.

Robert Viglasky/Netflix

The same is true for Heart of Stone itself. The film’s prologue, which was shot on-location at a mountainside resort, has such a pleasingly tactile feel to it that it gets everything off to an encouragingly strong start. For the 40 or so minutes that follow, Heart of Stone successfully maintains the same enjoyable rhythm and sense of fun as its opening, too. That’s due, in no small part, to Harper’s assured, distinct visual style, as well as the on-screen camaraderie that’s established between Gadot and her fellow MI6 agents. Once the latter element is disrupted, however, Heart of Stone’s hold over its material begins to falter.

The film’s second half proves to be substantially weaker than its first. It reaches its lowest point, ironically enough, during an aerial sequence set 40,000 feet in the air that looks fake and muddy and, even worse, comes across as a failed attempt to recapture the magic of Mission: Impossible — Fallout’s iconic HALO jump. Like a lot of its fellow, contemporary espionage thrillers, Heart of Stone packs the most punch whenever it keeps its action sequences on the ground.

For all of its occasional, spectacle-oriented flaws, the movie benefits greatly from its dedication to shooting in real locations. Its story takes it around the globe, from London and Northern Italy to Iceland and Lisbon, and Harper’s commitment to shooting as much as he can on the ground in those cities prevents Heart of Stone from feeling overwhelmingly artificial. While it doesn’t fully sell every idea it has, Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder’s screenplay ends up delivering a message about how humanity should approach potential tools like AI in a way that feels undeniably timely.

Heart of Stone is an effective, if imperfect, love letter to the movies that inspired it.

Robert Viglasky/Netflix

On-screen, Gal Gadot delivers one of her best performances in years as Rachel Stone, a character whose empathy allows the actress to tap into the same notes of open-hearted emotion that made her turn in 2017’s Wonder Woman feel so revelatory. There are instances throughout the film where Gadot still doesn’t deliver a line as well as she could have, but she nonetheless manages to make her character’s seemingly contradictory violent skills and compassionate impulses seem natural and real. Surprisingly enough, it’s Jamie Dornan who feels the most out of place in Heart of Stone as a spy who should seem far more intimidating than he ever does.

The result of all of these various missteps and successes is a blockbuster that doesn’t work as well as it could, but still functions far better than many may expect or give it credit for. The film is less smarmy and self-satisfied than The Gray Man, and less blandly made than Red Notice. Even more importantly, the palpable desire of its director and star to make something in the vein of the spy movies of the ‘90s imbues it with a clear, commendable creative spirit. That doesn’t mean Heart of Stone is perfect — far from it — but its oddly sweet rhythm is surprisingly easy to get into.

Heart of Stone premieres Friday, August 11 on Netflix.

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