Hardcore Henry (2016)
Rated R for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use
Score: 3 out of 5
Watching Hardcore Henry is like watching a ninety-minute Let's Play video of the wildest first-person shooter ever made. What little plot there is here exists just to string along a highlight reel of increasingly over-the-top action scenes that are all united by the film's main gimmick: it is told entirely through the eyes of the main character as he goes about shooting and punching everything that gets in his way. It's a gimmick that works amazingly well, enough to make me forgive the film's overall emptiness and a twist that, when I thought about how it was handled on the drive home, rubbed me the wrong way. I don't know how this is gonna hold up five or ten years from now when other action films have copied it to death (already, there's more than one film in the pipeline with a similar style), but for now, at least, it's a hell of a watch and a great proof of concept for its fundamental idea.
Adapted from a short film called Hardcore that existed mainly as a demo reel for the finished product, Hardcore Henry is shot entirely with a GoPro camera strapped to some dude's face. The protagonist is a mute, amnesiac cipher of a man named Henry who, after dying in an accident, is resurrected as a cyborg by his scientist wife Estelle (Haley Bennett). It isn't five minutes before Henry, Estelle, and her team are attacked by Akan, a criminal mastermind with telekinetic powers and a team of mercenaries at his disposal, who kidnaps Estelle in order to get her to build him an army of super-soldiers. As Henry fights his way through Moscow to save Estelle and get revenge on Akan, he encounters Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a man who constantly reappears in various forms (a homeless man, a party animal, a posh doctor, a punk rocker, a soldier) no matter how many times he gets killed, and seeks to guide Henry through his mission.
Reading the plot outline, you can practically see all the video games it's homaging; a little Metal Gear Solid here, some Call of Duty there, a dash of Duke Nukem on top. The twists are predictable after a certain point, and without spoiling anything, they dip into some pretty uncomfortable territory that I'm not exactly sure the film was intending to venture into. Beneath all the crazy action, the film was trying to say something about the nature of the video games it's adapting and the amount of agency the player character has, but the character they used to impart that message gave off some very disquieting vibes that made me wonder about the mindset of writer/director Ilya Naishuller. (Let's just say, had they replaced Estelle with a male father figure, the problem would've been tempered considerably.) It's a twist that certain video games have also managed to pull off, with quite a bit more grace than this film. Regardless, the story is so peripheral to what's happening on screen, there just to drive the events forward, that it's hardly a factor in my enjoyment. Sure, it doesn't elevate the film in any way, and it's best not to think about any deeper meanings that can be read into it, but it doesn't seriously drag it down either. The world of Hardcore Henry is one that operates on video game logic, opening with an escape from an airship (because why not?) and progressing from there into ever-more-outrageous set pieces.
And from start to finish, those set pieces were creative, intense, bloody, and awesome to watch. Naishuller packs them in, from a gun fight in a strip club to a foot chase through crowded streets to a car chase to a battle with a tank to what can only be described as a straight-up boss battle at the end. The first-person style gives them a sense of immediacy while still feeling coherent somehow, putting the viewer directly into the action in a way that so much lesser shaky-cam tries and fails to do. (And on that note, I dread what will happen when later filmmakers try to imitate the style without capturing what made it work.) It rarely lets up, either; this is a film that is about 80% action, of the hardcore, bone-crunching, ball-busting, blood-splattering variety. It's an action hound's dream, and while there's little but dental floss and chewing gum holding it together, it still kicked my ass. If you have problems with motion sickness, then something tells me this film will kick your ass for the wrong reasons, but if you love violent action movies and can handle the kinetic camera, then buckle up.
And as the cherry on top, there's Sharlto Copley. Not only does Jimmy offer the film what little depth it has, the character also gives Copley a chance to cut loose with a grab-bag of over-the-top performances. He's precisely the sort of guy this film needs, someone who's got the range to pull off all of Jimmy's different personas and is also willing to be just as crazy-awesome as the rest of the film. It's not much of a bar to clear, but he was by far the most lively character in the whole film. The rest of the acting isn't so hot, though. Haley Bennett is pretty much a poor man's Jennifer Lawrence here, and while she's improved since The Haunting of Molly Hartley, she has barely anything to do here beyond look pretty. Danila Kozlovsky's villain Akan makes little sense and has little explanation, but he was clearly having fun hamming it up as a superpowered evil dude, constantly taunting Henry when the two of them meet.
The Bottom Line:
It's hard to fault the film for its problems given how readily it seems to admit to them. It's completely empty-headed, and if you think about it for too long, you'll start to go "wow, this is a bit fucked-up." But for ninety minutes, if you turn your brain off, the rest of your body will get blasted out of its seat by some epic action filmmaking.