The music video for Biting Elbows‘ “Bad Motherfucker” and “The Stampede” caught a lot of attention back in 2013, but it was the sort of brief internet craze that lasts as long as a butterfly: briefly, albeit with a lot of flash. Until, that is, Ilya Naishuller, with Timur Bekmambetov as a producer, suddenly came out with this offering, taking the techniques that were tested out with Naishuller’s band and applying them to a full 90 minute theatrical experience.
Plenty of risk involved here: a visual technique almost entirely confined to the realm of video games, the possibility of making the audience motion sick and a hell of a lot of action set-pieces to execute. But there’s hope too: Sharlto Copley with a juicy multi-part role and something truly unique to showcase, in a genre that is as formulaic and stale as they come. Was Hardcore Henry the sort of defining film its creative team obviously hoped it would be, or an unwatchable chore?
Henry awakens after a terrible accident, much of his body replaced with cybernetic parts, his voice silenced and his memory lost. When a woman claiming to be his wife (Haley Bennett) is kidnapped by a telekinetic sociopath (Danila Kozlovsky), Henry is launched into a series of deadly confrontations in an effort to get her back, aided by Jimmy (Copley), an ever-changing and very mysterious robotics expert.
It’s a little bit difficult to offer a complete opinion on Hardcore Henry like I normally would for a film, because it is built almost entirely around its main visual technique. This is all Hardcore Henry really is, once you get beyond the bare surface level: a series of action sequences with a basic semblance of story stringing them together, the production team treating the film as more of a demo reel of what can be accomplished with this kind of visual focus than anything else.
It’s hard to get in any way invested with Henry, since he doesn’t talk at all, and just runs around after other characters, be they friend or foe. This can work for someone like Gordon Freeman, because you are ultimately in control of his fate, the interactivity the key component to emotional engagement: in Hardcore Henry, you are just following along, more of an LP watcher than fully involved.
Watching an action hero chase after his kidnapped spouse is hardly new territory, and things get taken to a point that is truly lazy: the goons all dressed the same (especially in a crazy finale), the female characters who are either whores, dominatrices or duplicitous schemers and never ending gore that becomes less and less interesting with every exploding skull.
The only chance Hardcore Henry has to mix things up is with that supporting cast. But Bennett is fairly throw away as the wife, with Hardcore Henry generally not doing much for women in film. Kozlovsky is our villain, a corporate megalomaniac named Akan, who looks a bit like Jeremy Iron’s King of the Morlochs, and just happens to have telekinetic powers that I don’t think were ever actually explained at any point. He’s fun, but so over the top as to be a cartoon.
But then there’s Copley, who just keeps popping up as fast as his personas are (horribly) killed, and aside from that central attraction of the camera angle, he’s the only one making Hardcore Henry worth watching. He’s having a ball here: as the action hero, as the vagrant, as the drugged up Lothario, as the nerd, as the World War Two era British Colonel.
The film automatically improves every time that Copley is in the eyeline, and for a narrative that barely exists, such enthusiasm and wacky interactions are badly needed. Indeed, with Henry being mute, it’s Copley who has to do nearly all of the talking: the script is as basic as the general plot, but at least “Jimmy” imbues it with a bit of panache.
Because there really isn’t anything else to talk about other than the cinematography, and it really is quite enjoyable. Of course it’s not the first film to do something like this (Was 1947’s Lady In The Lake the first film to be presented almost entirely in the first person?) but it is the first film to try and do so as an action flick. There’s shoot-outs, there are foot chases, there is vehicular combat, there is one against one and one against many. If Hardcore Henry can say nothing else, it at least manages to keep things varied, even if the sheer volume of action sequences threatens to overwhelm the viewers attention span by the time the last bullet is fired and the final neck snapped.
Naishuller and company do seem to get this technique, enough that a certain level of restraint prevents the threat of nausea while still leaving plenty of room to suck the audience in. Even at its worst moments, Hardcore Henry is still sort of entrancing: even someone as familiar with the FPS genre of video games as myself could’t help but be impressed by what is accomplished here, namely a 90 minute action sequence, occasionally broken up, that never manages to get boring even if you can’t help but notice how unspectacular that narrative really is. Things remain easy to follow even when the bloodshed is reaching ridiculous levels: a late sequences, involving a derelict building and a mad dash down several levels of it, is a particular treat. Yes, you can’t help but get desensitised to the violence after a time, Hardcore Henry the last kind of film to show restraint, however it’s all part of the show, the film’s very raison d’etre.
But it just can’t get beyond those clear and present weaknesses. It is perfectly possible for Hardcore Henry is have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the balance of action and story, even with its singular perspective: the better class of FPS, like Half-Life, is able to pull it off, albeit with a different medium. Hardcore Henry skews almost entirely in one direction: it simply isn’t interested in being a full experience.
Instead, it feels like a movie waiting for something else: the film that will come after, take the technique that Hardcore Henry has introduced, and make something really spectacular out of it, bridging the gap between video game and film. Hardcore Henry proves that the action side of things can be successfully and entertainingly accomplished. Someone else will have to wrap a story around that. Lacking any kind of depth and with only one member of the cast actually worth watching, Hardcore Henry is an experience almost entirely visual in nature, a show-reel: for that, and that alone, it is recommended.
(All images are copyright of STX Entertainment).