Review by C.J. Bunce
What appeared via advance marketing like it was going to be another film from the back side of the video store rack or film school-level sci-fi movie actually ends up as an acceptable sci-fi/superhero B-movie. Code 8, which just arrived on Netflix, began back in 2016 as a short film project by Canadian cousins Stephen Amell, famous as CW’s Arrow, and Robbie Amell, who played CW’s Firestorm. The project then went on to accumulate nearly $3.5 million of crowd-funding to make this feature length film, from first time writer-director Jeff Chan. Ambitious is a fitting description of the film, which has overall low production levels, yet at points it offers some quality sci-fi tech via android cops and superpowered humans. But its best feature is the promising young lead, as the more popular Stephen Amell takes a backseat to his cousin, Robbie Amell (ARQ, The Tomorrow People), whose charm and authenticity have him upstaging everyone scene after scene, including his cousin.
Robbie Amell plays 26-year-old Connor Reed, one of a rare breed of superpowered humans in a near-present day alternate Earth, with the story set in the fictional Lincoln City, some 90 years into a world of X-Men-inspired superhumans, all with varying types of powers. Connor is a Class-5 “electric” meaning he can wield incredible jolts of power to use as a carpenter or to defeat high-tech security in a heist taking the form of android cops. Connor’s mother, played by the versatile Kari Matchett (A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Leverage, Wonderfalls), is dying, and so he makes the decision to use his powers for evil to earn tens of thousands of dollars in gang money for a needed operation. Class struggle is a theme handled here similar to District 9 and Elysium, with the discrimination beats of AlienNation and Bright, and the superpowers presented here bring out the vibe of Brightburn (minus the horror).
The town has its own gangsters, centered around a drug called Psyke, including a mid-level, up-and-comer played by Stephen Amell named Garrett, who takes on Connor when he needs the extra power (literally) for a job. The real-life cousins’ chemistry is instant, and Connor joins a crew of characters, one with the power to melt metal played by Locke & Key’s Laysla De Oliveira, a deaf superhuman with incredible strength played by Vlad Alexis (X-Men: Apocalypse), and a young woman with the power to heal played by Kyla Kane (Channel Zero). Levels of crime lords mean power plays, and that makes everything messy for everyone. Crime requires crimefighters, which sets the stage for the second best part of the movie, The Fast and the Furious’s Sung Kang with his always cool vibe, this time as the key cop on the case.
It sounds like the X-Men, but it’s far less than that, none of the superhero feats and battles, because this is more of a quiet, personal tale–again, like Brightburn, last year’s film about a misunderstood kid with superpowers. Sung Kang’s cop has his own secret, which provides a framework for him to try to get Connor to turn evidence against the mob, and he gets to show his stuff as everyone would like to see him in the next TV police procedural, a continuation of sorts of his Captain Tanaka from the reboot Magnum PI.
But the show and simple story is handled well–it’s clean, with brief periods of quality acting. The story touches on the downside of technology, of automated police functions, of facial recognition abused by the government, and individual privacy infringed by drone technology. The result is a film that rivals some of the direct-to-Netflix genre films like The Cloverfield Paradox, Extinction, Anon, I Am Mother, and IO. Put Code 8 a step up, next to Bright. Again, these aren’t great films, but not bad as a quick escape, especially for the price of admission. Watch for the sky arrival of the CGI/motion capture robo-cops (whose heads look admittedly like 1990s camcorders), which is surprisingly good.
Fans of the CW Arrowverse will no doubt enjoy seeing more of Stephen and Robbie. It’s good to see Stephen getting out in new roles. He’s typecast as Oliver Queen from Arrow right now, and probably could stand to use some updates to his look (changed hair, lose the beard?) to allow him to start taking on the roles left behind by Jeremy Renner as Renner gets older. Stephen’s superpowered role in Code 8 is not unlike his Arrow role, an angry man fighting in his city, not allowing for much acting range. And Robbie is poised to get a movie break sooner or later, the kind of role to propel him upward on a trajectory like Canadian TV actor turned movie star Cobie Smulders.
Check out Code 8, available now on Blu-ray here at Amazon, also on Amazon Prime, and now streaming on Netflix.