Review by Daniel Lima
Something I used to do before the age of streaming and theater subscription plans was read the plot summaries of movies I thought I’d never get the chance to see on Wikipedia. It’s a peculiar way to experience a story meant to be told through the language of cinema — reducing an art form that relies on imagery and sound to build characters, generate mood, and emotionally move its audience, to just a series of events that happens. I never imagined I’d watch an actual film that reminded me of sitting in front of the family computer, scrolling through a synopsis and wondering what it must be like to see this actually play out. Now, I don’t have to imagine, because I have Dark Asset.
The film opens with action veteran Byron Mann under guard in an interrogation room, with a team of scientists in an observation room, separated by only a one-way mirror. The lab-coated technicians run a battery of tests on him, helpfully explaining that he now has a microchip in his brain that will make him the perfect soldier. Suddenly, he breaks free of his restraints, escapes the room, and goes on a tear through the barren facility holding him.
The exposition is clunky and trite, but playful, with the actors speaking with an utter conviction that only makes their technobabble more ridiculous. The borderline camp feel turns the cheap-looking sets and humdrum visual aesthetic into boons, lending the film a texture reminiscent of classic law budget science fiction B-movies. The action isn’t anything to write home about, mostly boiling down to Mann walking down a white hallway shooting people who randomly pop out. That being said, it’s arguably better choreographed and edited than most full-scale blockbusters. Even Mann himself, silent though he is, exudes the intense screen presence that always makes him a welcome addition to any cast.
For those first twenty minutes, Dark Asset is a surprisingly decent DTV action-thriller. That is not indicative of the rest of the film.
Instead, the entire rest of the runtime is spent with Mann narrating the story of how he got to that lab to a woman in a bar, played by Helena Mattsson. Wanting to give her a comprehensive perspective, he tells her every solitary detail of the conspiracy: the previous test subjects, how they got into the program, what their life was like beforehand, the missions they went on, how they met their end, and only then does he talk about himself, flirting with the woman between these entire disconnected vignettes. And so the film lurches forward, unfocused and scattershot, to its inevitably weak conclusion.
It shouldn’t need to be said that a character, telling the story of other characters, that neither the character’s audience nor the audience experiencing the retelling have any emotional connection with, is completely impenetrable. There is no through line for the audience to become invested in. The story involves people who are introduced with a couple lines, often get only a handful themselves, and most crucially, are established as already being out of the picture. Even in a world where this vague, confusing conspiracy narrative was compelling (it isn’t), it is made clear they aren’t going to have anything to do with it going forward.
Being forced to sit in one space as it slowly becomes clear that yes, this is what the entire rest of the movie will be like, whittles away the charms the film has going for it. Mann and Mattsson actually have good screen chemistry, and their dialogue has genuine heat. Unfortunately, their conversation is undercut by the fact that this is clearly a device to pad out the runtime, and it’s clear from the moment they start talking to one another where the conversation is going. By the end, it’s hard not to resent every second spent with the two of them in this lifeless, plastic facsimile of a bar.
It’s impossible to say for certain that the filmmakers behind Dark Asset had an idea for a script, realized they could get Mann for only a couple of days, then recalibrated the story to facilitate that. The finished product certainly gives that impression. To their credit, those opening minutes where he is actually driving a bona fide narrative forward is pretty good, and had the film carried that momentum forward it could have been an entertaining ride. Sadly, this was one of the most baffling, tedious films of the year.
Dark Asset releases in theaters and VOD September 22.