Ever since the 2016 short, I have been looking forward to Code 8’s feature film adaptation. The wait is over as the Stephen and Robbie Amell collaboration had its VOD (and limited theater) release on Friday, December 13.
Set in a world where a small percentage of the population is born with various powers, the narrative follows Conner (Robbie Amell), a mid-twenties electric whose life is a familiar struggle, exacerbated by his classification as a powered individual. Worse still for him is that his mother (Kari Matchett, Covert Affairs, Leverage, Crash: the series) is sick. Combined with already outstanding medical bills, no insurance, and difficulty finding work, the desperate Conner meets Garret (Stephen Amell), a seedy criminal who’s looking to make his own mark in a city that’s thrown his kind to the side. Seeing the enormous potential in Conner, Garrett mentors the younger man, helping Conner develop his prodigious electric abilities while avoiding the police and their robotic guardians to pay their debts to the Trust, the governing criminal body of Lincoln City’s underworld.
At first glance, Code 8 could be mistaken for any number of stories where humanity shuns those with powers. From 2009’s Push, the X-Men franchise, or even Netflix’s upcoming The Witcher, it’s an oft-used concept. Where Code 8 is different is in, during a quick history lesson-type intro, the powered were originally celebrated during this world’s Manufacturing Revolution (think early 1900s), only falling out of favor when automation made humans workers for these jobs obsolete. It’s an interesting twist, adding a historical frame that is unfortunately not given more time to develop. As mentioned, the plot carries all the normal clichés but even if it’s a standard arc, Robbie Amell’s execution is nothing short of amazing. He gives life Conner’s anger and frustration of being marginalized and despised, with only his relationship with his mother keeping him grounded. Robbie is the heart of Code 8, his emotional journey (further influenced by Kari Matchett’s corresponding performance) leaving an indelible mark on viewers that, without it, would have been a forgettable affair.
But Robbie isn’t the only Amell flaunting his wares. Though not quite as talented as his cousin, Stephen Amell is quite good as the measured yet ambitious Garrett. His character here exhibits traits Arrow fans have already experienced with the darker versions of Oliver Queen. Had Code 8 been made four or five years ago, Stephen Amell’s role would have lacked the necessary depth required to make Garrett more than a two-dimensional character. His growth over the last few years—as evident in his wonderful performances in this final year of Arrow—is vital to building a genuinely fascinating protagonist in Garrett. Other than the familial connection he shares with his two partners-in-crime, Freddie (Vlad Alexis, Stonewall, Mary Kills People) and Maddy (Laysla De Oliveira, In the Tall Grass, The Gifted), Garrett’s history and motivations remain somewhat of a mystery. But even with so little to explore, Stephen Amell’s performance, left me with a burning desire to learn more about Garrett.
Through all of this, Conner and Garrett are tracked by Agent Park (Sung Kang, The Fast & Furious series, Power) and his partner, Agent Davis (Aaron Abrams, Blindspot, Hannibal). Where the Amells carry the heaviest load, Kang is decent enough as the strong, thoughtful, and honest Park. Unfortunately, there’s no exploration of his character, an oversight that could have been alleviated if his partner wasn’t the archetypical agent of chaos willing to cross the boundaries into illegal activity so long as the bad guys were put behind bars. The movie’s choice to almost entirely focus on the triumvirate of Conner, his mother, and Garrett is not a bad one, but the material preset to expand on Park’s story, particularly that of Park and his powered daughter, would have been an extremely positive addition to the narrative.
Make no mistake: Code 8 won’t be winning honors come award season but it’s an entertaining ride with good action sequences and, despite its small budget also delivers some capable effects. Where it stumbles is by the inability to effectively using its talented supporting cast. The most egregious example is with Marcus (Greg Bryk, The Expanse, Frontier, Ad Astra), Garrett’s boss and the movie’s primary antagonist. Despite an ability to read minds, one that could have been used for so much more, Marcus is as vanilla as they come (and this is through no fault of Bryk’s performance). At least for Park, should he be added the recently announced series (to stream on Quibi), there’s an opportunity there to create a more nuanced role for Kang. The same can be said for Kyla Kane’s (Diggstown, Channel Zero) Nia, a healer caught up in this shady world through no fault of her own.
Code 8 doesn’t give us anything we haven’t seen before, but that’s not the point. Notwithstanding the love so clearly visible in this film’s creation, the Amells bring viewers into a world that, after the 100-minute runtime, begs for more exploration. For their fans and those of good sci-fi alike, Code 8 is but a glimpse into a much larger world that tackles the sometimes dismal reality that while humanity will always find something in others to hate, we all have the ability, superpowers or not, to decide how we respond to it. The most important thing is staying true to yourself and those you love, for better or worse.