Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writer: Ilya Naishuller
This is a film that certainly lives up to its title; hardcore is definitely the word to describe the content of Hardcore Henry. In its attempt to be a movie that looks and feels like a video game Hardcore Henry does not hold back on any count. Naishuller knew exactly what kind of approach he wanted to take with this film and he went for it at a full sprint, guns blazing, and screaming at the top of his lungs. Whatever faults this film might have, and there are a few, I nevertheless want to commend it for the utter commitment given to its format and style. While video game movies are hardly new, none of them have ever gone as far as Hardcore Henry to try and capture the uniquely immersive visual experience of playing a video game. A common criticism used so often in reviews of video game movies that it has practically become a cliché is that they feel more like watching somebody play a video game rather than playing it yourself. Though hardly a perfect movie, I believe that Hardcore Henry has come closer than any other film to capturing that sensation.
The film is viewed entirely in the first-person through the eyes of Henry, who wakes up in a lab on an airship. He is greeted by a scientist called Estelle (Haley Bennett) who reveals that she is his wife and that she has revived and rebuilt him after an accident that has left him amnesiac and mute. Some mercenaries, led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), invade the airship and so Henry must make his escape using his new cybernetic body and enhanced abilities. He lands in Moscow where he is separated from his wife before falling into the company of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). Jimmy is a mysterious figure who seems to understand what is going on and who keeps appearing and reappearing throughout the events of the movie even after meeting a number of gruesome deaths. Through the insanity that ensues Henry must survive the mercenaries being sent after him and solve the mystery of who he is and why he is being targeted.
This film sets out to capture the quality of a first-person shooter which is why it adopts a story that is more action-based than character-driven. The action is intense, relentless and creative but it can also be tiresome and gratuitous. After about 20-30 minutes when you start getting used to the gimmick of the first-person perspective you gradually start to remember that you are in fact watching a movie and not playing a video game. The distinction is important because the issue of immersion is perhaps the greatest challenge facing this film. If the viewer is not actively involved or personally invested in the action, then the gimmick is eventually going to wear off. Since direct participation is impossible, the best the movie can do is provide the viewer with a character they can follow and with whom they can identify. This is where the film falls short. It is common for the protagonists of FPS games to be largely silent and nondescript because it makes it easier for the player to use them as vessels for their own personalities. Since we have no control over Henry however we have no choice but to view him as his own character. The lack of a personality therefore proves to be a great hindrance as it leaves little for the viewer to hold on to.
There is one character in this film who brings much life to the table and that is Jimmy. In what Sharlto Copley has described as his most physically demanding performance to date, Jimmy is a strange man who keeps appearing throughout Henry’s ordeal despite dying time and time again. Each time he reappears he comes with a new look and personality. Over the course of the film we see him as a dutiful army soldier, a cocaine-addicted womaniser, a hippie biker, a song and dance man and many more. It is a truly insane idea for a character which is exactly what you need for an insane movie such as this. However I must say that I wasn’t particularly convinced by the movie’s villain or by Henry’s wife. I found the former to be pretty weak and the latter to be pretty dull. For me it was Jimmy alone who saved this movie from being 90 minutes of mindless violence.
With that said those who watch Hardcore Henry looking for some mindless violence will not be disappointed. Every time Henry comes into a conflict with the human cannon fodder sent by Akan to take him down, the level of action is turned up to eleven. There is blood and explosions aplenty, an immeasurable body count and a variety of weapons and settings used for a good number of imaginative fight scenes. I however was kind of done with the action scenes about halfway through the movie. Without a character or a coherent story to follow I eventually found the action to be almost monotonous in its persistence and endlessness. Nevertheless there are many viewers for whom the story and characters will be entirely irrelevant and they are the ones who will enjoy the movie the most. Overall I’d say that I did enjoy the movie and was certainly impressed by its format but I also think that once was enough. In terms of content there just isn’t enough that warrants a second viewing.