SAS: Rise of the Black Swan (Netflix) was originally titled SAS: Red Notice, and debuted on Amazon Prime under that title earlier this year. Then Dwayne Johnson leaned on it, and the title transformed into something clunkier under threat from The Rock’s upcoming Netflix actioner Red Notice, where he’s joined by fellow A-listers Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot. It’s unclear if the perfunctory, slapdash Rise of the Black Swan is meant to offer some kind of sideways marketing for that Red Notice or what, but nevertheless, it’s currently charting on Netflix.
The Gist: As a ponderous Tom Wilkinson voiceover muses over the nature of psychopathy and whether anyone wired as such is capable of love, we meet the Black Swans, a ruthless private military organization run by Wilkinson’s Lewis and his two adult children. Grace (Ruby Rose) is Lewis’s right hand — she’s cold, cunning, and willing to get wet. Ollie (Owain Yeoman), meanwhile, is just a violent thug. The Swans arrive at a pipeline build site near Tbilisi, Georgia, where they’re directed by Clements (Andy Serkin), a slimy British military higher-up with the ear of the prime minister, to vacate a village that’s blocking construction. The resulting massacre, caught on tape, forces the government to either admit its role in outsourcing the Swans or attempt to snuff out the mercenaries. We also meet square-jawed Special Air Service operator Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan of Outlander fame), who comes from privilege, is devoted to his regiment, and loves Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen, Game of Thrones). Tom and Sophie board the Eurostar to Paris, where he plans to propose, but everything goes kablooey in the channel tunnel when Grace and her Black Swan team hijack the train. Her demands? That the PM publicly admits his government’s role in the Georgia massacre, or Grace is paid a $500,000,000 ransom.
Tom is loose in the tunnel, playing cat and mouse with Swan henchmen and communicating with his SAS mate Declan (Tom Hopper) while he searches for a way to extract Sophie, nab Grace, and maybe save the rest of the hostages. (He honestly doesn’t seem too concerned about the hostages.) And as Tom keeps sneaking around, picking off Grace’s seemingly endless supply of goons one by one, another facet of her scheme emerges that further indicts Clements, the government, and Brit Gaz. Remember that pipeline business in Georgia? Well, the petroleum conglomerate has a secret pipeline in the Chunnel, too. And Grace is just the kind of psycho merc to blow it up. Even with Clements and an SAS strike team hovering about, it of course falls to Tom alone to thwart Grace’s evil plan.
Photo: Everett CollectionWhat Movies Will It Remind You Of? Elementally, we’ve seen all of this before. Tom Cruise, of course, rode out an explosion in the Channel Tunnel first in Mission: Impossible (1996). And Steven Seagal was the lone hero fighting thugs on a hijacked train in 1995’s better-than-you-remember Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. More recently, Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and its lesser but still competent sequels has provided suitable thrills in the one guy vs. all action genre.
Performance Worth Watching: Ruby Rose loves to play the villain, and she does her best with Grace, gaining ground with a devilish dark bob cut and grinning with mirth every time she kills somebody. Unfortunately, the script gives her no support, and even lines designed for maximum evil leader satisfaction ring really, really hollow.
Memorable Dialogue: “I’ve never loved anyone in my entire life.” Various versions of that sentiment pop up persistently in Rise of the Black Swan; it’s a component of that voiceover introduction, Lewis says it of his relationship with his children, and Grace sees it as a commonality between she and Tom. And this makes sense, since Andy McNab, the prolific author of military action novels whose book this film was based on, is not only a former SAS soldier himself but has also co-authored a book about psychopathic traits being potentially good for people.
Sex and Skin: Nope.
Our Take: “We’re more alike than you know,” Grace tells Tom as they stab and punch each other late in the film, and it’s yet another moment when Rise of the Black Swan tries to bolt on some substance to its standard-issue plotting. And maybe Tom really is a psychopath, but Sam Heughan’s blank stares and dismissive “It’s hard to explain”‘s aren’t explaining anything about the character’s motivations. And where that leaves the film is stalled in the chunnel, with its succession of faceless henchman death blows and Ruby Rose making menacing Skype calls to Andy Serkis. We definitely understand that Grace is a psycho — Rose manages to broadcast that. But Rise of the Black Swan bogs itself down with a lot of plodding around as the Swans’ dastardly plan takes forever to lurch into gear. There’s militarized jargon on a feedback loop — “close target recce,” “all call signs, I have the alpha,” “sierra red one,” blah blah blah — and none of it gets us any closer to caring about who’s going to make it out of the chunnel alive.
Don’t be fooled either by the presence of Tom Wilkinson. The veteran English actor appears here in what amounts to an extended cameo, a gravitas lender to aid the bulk of Black Swan‘s ground floor action movie mechanics. Rose gives Grace a real mean streak, but can’t outrun the weak script, and Sam Heughan looks convincing enough brandishing an assault rifle, but never provides any real insight into Tom beyond those vague stabs at what it truly means to live a life of violence. The representative action parts of SAS: Rise of the Black Swan are satisfactory only if you don’t pay it a whole lot of attention.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Outlander superfans might clamor to see Heughan in a contemporary setting, but SAS: Rise of the Black Swan is otherwise too basic an action movie to warrant a rewarding watch.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges