Upgrade ★★½

Hollywood doesn't often make medium-small thrillers like 'Upgrade' anymore: a speculative sci-fi actioner that boasts a hefty dose of cyberpunk despair, a dash of body horror, and -- apologies to Logan Marshall-Green -- no real Movie Stars. It feels like something that came out in 1995, happened to fall behind the couch (ragged VHS sleeve and all), and has just now been re-discovered.

It's silly, predictable, and gratuitously violent, but writer-director Leigh Whannell at least understands that doing something familiar and straightforward effectively can make for an exceedingly satisfying popcorn experience. As in his only other directorial effort, 'Insidious: Chapter 3', he sweats the storytelling fundamentals and a handful of the creepier details. 'Upgrade' is, I think, slightly better than that 2015 horror feature; it helps that Whannell isn't being weighed down by the increasingly convoluted mythology of a franchise.

An unspecified numbers of years into the drone-crowded future, an auto mechanic named Grey is left a quadriplegic and a widower by a mysterious robbery-gone-wrong. A billionaire benefactor gives Grey renewed mobility (and purpose) by surgically implanting a bleeding-edge computer chip in the back of his neck. Soon, however, the artificial intelligence in the doodad is speaking to Grey, and -- wait for it -- *upgrading* his physical form with near-superhuman strength, senses, and reflexes. Grey thereafter sets out on a poorly-planned vigilante mission to avenge his wife, ducking a police detective and cutting a bloody swath through an assortment of heavies. Naturally, no one can be trusted.

Sleek, gritty, and snarky, ‘Upgrade’ is nothing remarkable, but it's pleasing to see a film that acknowledges the inherent silliness of the material while also unabashedly working to make it the best goddamn silliness it can be. Whannell's dialogue is frankly kind of terrible, but most of the actors seem to be well aware of this, and they all find ways around it: Marshall-Green plays it faintly meta and incredulous, Harrison's Gilberston's mogul is all cringing tics, and Benedict Hardie's assassin revels in lip-smacking menace.

Marshall-Green isn't a particularly charismatic or emotive performer, but his physical acting in this feature is marvelous, creative stuff. At risk of drawing an unfair comparison, the challenge he faces is similar to that of Brigitte Helm in Metropolis (1927): How to create a performance around a science-fiction conceit that doesn't have a lot of (if any) precedent in existing cinema. Helm had to essentially invent the concept of an "android" through her acting, and Marshall-Green does something comparable here, embodying (with a little help from the VFX department) how the human form might move if it were being forced to do so by a ruthlessly precise A.I.