Hardcore Henry (dir. Ilya Naishuller)

Posted: April 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Hardcore Henry” is an action movie filmed entirely in a first-person perspective. While many people I have talked to have avoided the movie out of fear of getting dizzy and/or a headache, I left the theater unscathed, despite sitting pretty damn close to the screen. The comparisons to video games are pretty spot-on, as the threadbare story of the film hits many of the beats and tropes of a first-person shooter game. The style and tone, aside from the video game connection, feel like something out of the “Crank” films, where ultraviolence is combined with a dark or sick sense of humor to create a rollercoaster ride of comedic violence that occasionally crossing into outright gore. The film suffers from some mild misogyny (all of the female characters are strippers, hookers, almost-rape-victims, or evil), but otherwise the film is a wild lot of fun for those inclined to enjoy this sort of thing. You know who you are.


The story involves Henry (played by multiple stuntmen and camera operators…the film was shot from Go Pro cameras attached to masks that the camera or stunt people worse), a man who apparently died a violent death and was brought back to life into a cyborg create thanks to a female doctor who says she’s his wife, Estrelle (Haley Bennett, looking very much like Jennifer Lawrence in many moments of the film). After a brief introduction to Henry’s body and powers (a video game tutorial, basically), the lab they are in is infiltrated by a telekinetic albino with an unidentifiable accent named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky). Akan runs an evil corporation in Russia (the entire film takes place in Russia) and seems to want Henry’s technology.


Henry and Estelle escape the lab, which is a flying airship, but on the ground Henry is attacked and Estelle kidnapped. After a firefight, Henry is met by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a man who knows what Henry is and, for a while, unexplainably changes appearance and personality throughout the film. Jimmy acts like the video game characters who give the player his missions and equipment, like Atlas in “Bioshock”. Go here and fetch this, go here and kill that, etc.  The thrust of the plot is basically Henry trying to rescue his wife, keep himself alive, learn about his technology, and find out who Akan is, who Jimmy is, and that he hell is going on with himself.


So that’s the story: a kind of warmed-over “Robocop” with an unusual villain who telekinesis is never explained. The story is sort of beside the point, as the entire film exists as an excuse to shoot action scenes and chase scenes in the first person, and your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on how much you enjoy the novelty of this approach. I found it to be a lot of fun. From a filmmaking standpoint I could see how certain shots must have been quite difficult to pull off, and figuring out where the cuts were hidden in the midst of whip-pans and where subtle CGI was used to augment certain sections was a little mini-game within the movie.  The film moves too fast at some points, and one maybe wishes the film had slowed down for some of the violence to give the horror movie gorehounds some time to appreciate the make-up effects. The speed also takes away from the violence at times. There are no slow violent scenes along the lines of Murphy’s death by gunfire execution in the original “Robocop”, and that detracts from any real power the violence might have. I’m guessing that’s why the opening credits are a slow motion, ultra-close up of violence set to deceptively slow, almost 80s New Wave sounding music. It makes for a good counterpoint.

The director, Ilya Naishuller, was previously a music video director, and you can tell by the way violence is scored quite well to music, most notably at the end when Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” scores a scene featuring a cacophony of violence wherein Henry dispatches with dozens if not hundreds of NPCs after injecting himself with adrenaline (like a video game power-up). I know I often complain about films where the finale is just a bunch of digital people fighting a bunch of digital aliens (“The Avengers”) or digital robots (“The Avengers: Age of Ultron”), but it’s different when you know there are flesh and blood actors playing the NPCs, even if the violence is augmented via digital effects.


The film is so much like a video game (boss battles, clearly distinct “levels” in the acts) that the central gimmick of the film may appear weaker than it is to some filmgoers who are either not too well-versed in video game’s cinematic language or who otherwise don’t care for the narrative beats taking so much after a different medium.  One wonders if this first-person protagonist thing could work in an action movie film via, say, Steadicam instead of the herky-jerky Go Pro. Other films have been shot in large part via first person before (Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void”) and other films have had long sequences of it (Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days”, the remake of “Maniac”) so “Hardcore Henry” isn’t breaking much new ground just by doing that. “Hardcore” is mainly going to be notable for how versatile and limber the shots can be because the camera is not restricted by a dolly or a crane, and instead can be attacked to a stuntman jumping on to moving cars of sliding down an escalator. The first-person perspective combined with that freedom of movement in an action film that barely if ever slows down is what the film brings to cinema which hasn’t quite existed before. It’s like watching someone play a FPS while high on cocaine.


The Russian sensibility (most of the cast and crew are Russian) comes through in the film a little bit. Without going into spoilers, there’s some content about soldiers and casualties of war that goes to a basic anti-war and nation-states and corporations disrespecting soldiers for profit and conquest, but it’s all on-the-nose while similarly being in the background simply because the hyperkinetic shit all around it will drown out any message.


The one aspect of this film I really enjoyed was the villain. Akan is an odd creation that doesn’t quite belong in this film, with his odd personality, unexplained powers, and unusual appearance and accent. He commands the screen whenever he is on, and you miss him when he is not. I suppose it makes up for having a hero who says nothing and is pretty much just a camera that beats up and shoots people. In an age where action films (Marvel) are giving us crappier and crappier villains, an unusual one that stands out is a treat.


I had a lot of fun watching this movie, which is really less a movie and more of a cinematic ride that should probably be judged less on an intellectual basis (which would consist of complimenting its technical prowess while denigrating its one-dimensional script) and more on pure, visceral enjoyment. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, but it’s certainly not a bad one. B+


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