Hardcore Henry should have been very easy to hate. Its video gamelike first person style didn’t seem suited to a feature length film and the film’s entire conceit felt like a tone-deaf excuse for intense violence. And in many ways the film is a giant excuse to leap from one action sequence after another. But the film has such style and irreverent panache that it’s not just hard to hate, it’s hard not to like.
The film opens in a scene that will be familiar to most first person shooter gamers: Henry wakes up, strapped to an operating table with no memory of how he got there. He’s been in an accident and Estelle (Haley Bennett, The Equalizer), a scientist who we find out is Henry’s wife, has suited him with bionics to make him stronger and faster. Before they can install his new voice box, the procedure is interrupted by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a madman with telekinetic powers and dreams of a cyborg army. Henry escapes the lab, located conveniently in a zeppelin flying high above Moscow, and embarks on a blood soaked mission to get his wife back and rediscover who he is.
This should give you a taste of the kind of madness Hardcore Henry revels in. First time writer / director Ilya Naishuller has delivered a surprisingly well-honed piece of action cinema. The plot is threadbare, but it’s strong enough to support the ludicrous action that revolves around it. The whole movie hinges on its commitment to this Looney Tunes, video game mentality that Naishuller builds his world upon. It works remarkably well, with the actors all buying into the film’s madcap style. Akan in particular has a great deal of fun with his telekinesis, which is, of course, never rationalized or explained because to let in one shred of realism would shatter the illusion they’ve conjured. It’s refreshing to see a film be so unabashed in its insanity.
The violence in Hardcore Henry is predictably plentiful and gratuitous, but it never really feels brutal. You can’t help but feel that all the bloodshed is one restart away from being cleared up. This is probably best exemplified by Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley (District 9), a mysterious man who helps Henry in his fight against Akan. Despite being constantly shot, stabbed, set on fire, and blown up Jimmy keeps coming back to help, which is good of him. It’s a clever plot device that helps remind us how absurd this all is.
Of course Hardcore Henry‘s main hook is its first person perspective. Naishuller uses the format to great effect, creating heart-pumping action sequences that are like nothing we’ve seen. The videogame-like style works within the narrative in interesting ways, making what little subtext the film has worth delving into. There are bound to be people made uncomfortable by this; I can imagine the camera’s constant movement could make those who get motion sickness feel queasy, and one viewer in my screening felt claustrophobic while watching the film. That being said, Hardcore Henry first-person style is a fascinating and on the whole successful experiment. Its most certainly a gimmick, it’s at least a gimmick that works well.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
There will be those who will roll their eyes and flat out refuse to see a movie like Hardcore Henry. It’s the type of gimmicky, violent popcorn fare that’s easy to turn your nose up at and mutter about the state of film these days. It’s also one damn fun ride. Naishuller’s directorial debut should have been unwatchable, turns out its one of the best action movies of the year.