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Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writers: Ilya Naishuller (screenwriter), Will Stewart (additional writing by)
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Tim Roth, Haley Bennett, Many GoPro Cameras
Hardcore Henry is an action movie filmed almost entirely in first-person perspective (using GoPro Hero 3 cameras) and while it’s a triumph of stunt coordination and direction, there is a question of whether it’s necessary. Some would call it a game changer, but that’s not really the case. We’re not about to give up watching our handsome heroes from a distance, but there is great appeal to some of it, especially for video game first-person shooter fans who will feel right at home watching the action, though they may suffer itchy fingers wanting to take control.
The plot of the story is precisely the first two sentences of this review and nothing more. It is 96 minutes of one man fighting many to save Estelle (Haley Bennett), occasionally interrupted by a character named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who has a nasty habit of getting killed every time he shows up. How does he keep coming back? He’s a clone of course, and his primary self is a sort of mystery at first, but truly, no one watching is interested in the characters. Actually, there aren’t many to worry about. The only one not named yet is the nemesis, a skeazy long-haired albino named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), with telekinetic powers. He has reasons to kidnap Henry’s wife and have Henry hunt him, and indeed, that reveal is a clever one, even if it’s played like the mad schemes of a, well, video game bad guy. His background and motivations are not really touched upon, nor do they need to be. He’s only meant to show up in the cut scenes, er, transitions, getting us from one set piece to the next, egging our hero on. Oh, and Tim Roth shows up for about 45 seconds. That counts for something.
Taking place in Moscow, Hardcore Henry hits all the popular action movie trope stops, from abandoned buildings to car chases to strip clubs and rooftops, all the while slaying hundreds of soldiers who are naturally bad at their job. The movie tries to be over-the-top, not just with its action stunts, which admittedly are well-staged, but while limbs and torsos are perforated and cleaved in oddly tame ways, it feels like someone pulling back on the reigns. The film starts with credits rolling showing graphic slow-motion images of knifes puncturing flesh and gunshots tearing through bone, but there is a disconnect to it that doesn’t have the jarring impact it should. We are a jaded audience yes, but it’s not that we’re desensitized, it’s that we just don’t care. Without meaning or context, no matter how stylish the violence is, it is all just random gory images. This is partly the problem with Henry, too. He is a faceless, voiceless (the speech modulator on his reanimated body never got installed) character that has no ability to emote. He just punches and kicks. The irony is that we once scoffed at action heroes for their lack of dimension, but at least they had steely eyes and a one-liner at the ready. Henry does have motivation though and for a plot as thin as it is, it’s surprising how long that motivation can be stretched.
The knee-jerk reaction to watching the many incredibly well-choreographed stunts is to believe they are spectacular since it is fairly unique, and credit must be given to the team for being able to keep the queasiness to a very respectably minimum. That must have been a task. I can barely video someone blowing out birthday candles without making it feel like a Paul Greengrass Jason Bourne remake. That said, the action scenes are not fresh, ending up more like music video footage, and yes, some are very good, especially a short sequence on a highway that does some interesting things, but given the perspective, a lot happens that is hard to follow since our field of view is so limited. That works both in our favor and against as being directly in the action is undeniably cool but being used to seeing it from our normal point of view where we can savor the chaos makes it frustrating here.
So with a mute, unseen first-person hero on screen, that leaves us with only the things he can see for us to look at. The henchmen he fights are all black-armored thugs (save for the ending) and he just murders them. There are the strangely similar looking naked, blonde haired stripper/prostitutes in one lengthy fight scene, but it is mostly Jimmy who does the talking, showing up as a different character every time the previous one gets polished off. Copley has never been a great presence, aside from his star-making turn in Neill Blomkamp‘s District 9, he hasn’t exactly given a memorable performance. His bombastic, over-the-top delivery rarely works, and while here it finds a better home and is a bit entertaining merely in wonder of what he’ll be the next time he shows up, having him as our only real point of contact hurts the experience, especially once we figure out the routine. Still, he’s just manic enough to make it work.
All that said, I want to like this movie. I applaud director Ilya Naishuller for attempting this. We need innovators and filmmakers willing to take risks in how the art can move forward. There is an audience for this to be sure, and it will be a hit for many who find thrills in mindless kinetic action. That’s not an insult, as I am a fan on many levels. It takes a special kind of creativity and vision to see a project like this come to fruition and it should be seen, if only for the influence it will surely have as others use what is learned to make it better. Hardcore Henry is a flawed film that doesn’t quite live up to the expectation of the trailer nor the short films (music videos) that inspired it, but it sure is a fun diversion.