You’ve gotta give the folks behind ‘Hardcore Henry’ this much: They certainly didn’t hold anything back. The first action movie shot exclusively in a first-person p.o.v. is a relentless assault on the senses that leaps from one action scene to the next, slowing down only to tell some filthy jokes or indulge in a few extra effects sequences that don’t involve ultraviolence.
As a technical accomplishment, the film is impressive and a sight that every action cinema-lover should behold just to acknowledge that somehow it happened. However, it’s also a little too much and a little too dumb. In their attempt to create the cinematic equivalent of a First Person Shooter videogame, the filmmakers left out simple pleasures like compelling characters, credible dialogue, or satisfying storytelling. It’s a series of ridiculous climaxes without any nourishing downtime. Although admirable in intent, it’s not always as fun in execution as it thinks it is.
The camera stars as the titular Henry. He awakens in a science fiction laboratory where his mechanically enhanced body is now ready to kick butt in the field. The first person he sees (Haley Bennett) introduces herself as his wife and whispers a few sweet nothings before the base is infiltrated by a telepathic psycho villain (Danila Kozlovsky) who blows everything up. Suddenly, Henry (or us, I guess) finds himself racing through the streets of Moscow pursued by an army of generic goons. He kills a bunch of them and engages in a little parkour before meeting Sharlto Copley’s mysterious helper, who always arrives at the perfect time to give Henry the information he needs to get to the next action sequence. From there, it’s a series of chases, shoot-outs, strippers and semi-surprises until Henry finally fights Kozlovsky in a final boss battle made real on the big screen.
In a weird way, ‘Hardcore Henry’ feels like the most accurate cinematic videogame adaptation ever made, even though it isn’t actually based on a real videogame. It’s essentially an FPS in live action, with a wordless protagonist encountering a variety of colorful characters (most of whom are played by Copley) who give him weapons, tech upgrades and supporting fire before sending the hero onto the next action scene. No fuss, no muss, and certainly no subtext to be found anywhere. Fair enough. First time director Ilya Naishuller (whose music video “Bad Motherfucker” went viral and led directly to this feature) clearly enjoys the woozy visuals and relentless action style of games and delights in applying those conventions to film (which is where videogame designers took most of the devices from in the first place). As a work of pure spectacle, the guy delivers the goods.
Almost every conceivable type of action sequence pops up in ‘Hardcore Henry’ at one point or another. Scruffy fist fights, brain-blasting shoot-outs, high speed car chases, silly psychic battles, slo-mo super-powered impalement… name a form of big screen violence and it’s here. Seeing the sequences unfold in p.o.v. is immersive and viscerally stunning. It boggles the mind to think about how some of these scenes were accomplished, and tickles the eyes just to watch them unfold.
The movie only has one speed and that’s full throttle. It’s just one big stunt after another, and somehow Naishuller constantly finds ways to top himself. The tone is cartoony and willfully ridiculous, so none of the blood spilled ever stings. It’s designed to make you giggle and turn to the person sitting next to you to share a gasping glance of disbelief.
Unfortunately, that pounding sense of spectacle is all Naishuller seems to care about, for better or worse. On the plus side, there’s never been a movie so packed with jaw-drop action. On the downside, there’s rarely been a movie less interested in characters and storytelling. Everyone in the movie is little more than a cartoon with a handful of swears and dick jokes to spit out. There’s no one to really care about or empathize with beyond the protagonist that viewers can’t help but identify with since they’re stuck in his head. That makes the movie feel a bit tedious after the 15th consecutive crazy bit of action.
The movie can only be enjoyed for its action. Everything else must be tolerated. Sure, it’s amusing to see Sharlto Copley play so many weird characters, but it would be better to see an actor of his talent play one memorable character. The rest of the cast are either stuntmen or performers whose acting style recalls a 2×4 plank of wood with a smiley face drawn on it. (Danila Kozlovsky is particularly rough, so don’t expect to ever find the villain intimidating.) After a while, even as a fan of action and spectacle, I got exhausted and started counting down to the inevitable explosive climax.
While ‘Hardcore Henry’ is an amazing showcase of style-over-substance, it’s ultimately just a little too over-the-top to satisfy beyond a fast food level. The movie will likely please the gamer crowd since it delivers the raunch and spectacle they want. It’s dumb and reductive, often even rather repulsive. However, it’s also a hard-R version of a Road Runner cartoon, so it’s easy to turn off the critical side of the brain, laugh ironically at all the ugly excess, and appreciate the pure sense of spectacle.
‘Hardcore Henry’ does too much too right on a purely technical level to dismiss, but also disappoints too deeply on every other level to champion beyond its pretty surface. Certainly, the movie demands to be seen by anyone who enjoys action and visual innovation because it succeeds extraordinarily well in that regard. However, I’d imagine that ‘Hardcore Henry’ will be little more than a footnote in film history once a p.o.v. action movie with even a mild interest in storytelling comes along. There’s no denying that Ilya Naishuller is a director with remarkable talent and promise, but hopefully next time he’ll get a script to work with rather than merely a loose outline of cool action scenes duct-taped to a case of Red Bull.