From the moment Hardcore Henry started, I felt like my whole body had just been crashed into by a giant wave. The effect of witnessing everything from a first person point of view is entirely different from something like found footage. Sure, it’s disorienting, but not simply in the sense that the frame is moving. It made me feel every single hit, and fall, and left me out of breath as “Henry” started chasing his enemies. My brain kicked into survival mode, as I not only felt as though I was the one in the middle of all this chaos, but I was also trying to adsorb the sheer madness of this wildly creative and inventive film.
After perhaps one of the most creatively gruesome opening credits sequences ever put on film, we find ourselves through the eyes of Henry. He’s a guy who has been resurrected from a deadly accident with a brand new cybernetic body, and no memory of his life before. His wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett, who bears a borderline distracting resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence) is the scientist who has brought him back, although there isn’t a lot of time for re-introductions. Almost instantly, a telekinetic, euro-trash mercenary named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) storms the lab, and sends Henry on a blood fueled chase to rescue his wife. Meanwhile, Henry meets a man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who seems to come in several different versions, all hell bent on helping him for their own personal reasons.
The big question mark with Hardcore Henry is whether or not a film that is done in the manner of a first person shooter video game can work, and the answer is an emphatic yes. Watching these action sequences unfold from this perspective truly is unlike anything I’ve seen. Not only are there all of the disorienting reactions that we as an audience find ourselves disconnected from when we view action from third person, but the film is so gleefully violent and fast paced that there is constantly something new happening. Even though the film is perhaps ninety percent action, each sequence feels completely different in excitation. What director Ilya Naishuller has achieved is a film that not only captures the spirit of the video games he’s imitating, but also the language of that style of storytelling that makes them so enjoyable. For anyone who spent their childhood behind a controller, this film is a dream come true.
The movie has a carefree, often hilarious tone that keeps things moving along as well. This is mostly due to Copley, a wonderful character actor who has had a bit of trouble finding compelling roles outside of his partnership with Neill Blomkamp. Here, he’s essentially given a big box of wigs, beards, and outfits and is just let free to run amok. The fun he is having in these tiny characters is absolutely infectious, perfectly capturing the classic sidekicks who often steel the show in video games. Kozlovsky is also a blast here, while not given a particularly deep villain to play, he chews every bit of scenery around him and is often given some really punchy lines. There are also just so many sight gags flying by at a mile a minute, that it’s rare to find a moment where you won’t be laughing here.
Unfortunately, the story these action sequences are essentially gift wrapped in doesn’t really hold up. It’s frankly rather thin, and if not for the sheer inventiveness of the execution, would have made for a fairly bland experience. There’s a couple of nifty surprises, but they all feel a bit thrown in just to make things crazier. The film is very self aware though, and spends very little time worrying about the silly little web it’s spun. Perfectly fine for this kind of movie, but the lack of a narrative as inventive as the rest of the film is what keeps it from really shooting for the stars.
While Hardcore Henry may not quite reach the level of delirious bloodshed of something like Crank, it’s a deeply entertaining action film in it’s own right. The point of view technique really does work, engrossing you in this film while also posing great possibilities for future films. It’s also perhaps the best video game movie ever made, even if it’s not based on an actual game. However, if the movies that are adapting video games can take some notes from this, while also incorporating a great story, comic book movies may not be the top dogs for much longer.