Hardcore Henry is only partly successful at using the first person POV format to create a unique cinematic experience.
Hardcore Henry is told entirely from the first-person perspective of Henry, a man who awakens to find himself in a laboratory with no memory of his past, having been transformed into a cybernetic super-man by a scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett) – who, as she explains to him, is also Henry’s wife and had performed this procedure on him in order to save his life. However, before Estelle and her her co-workers can restore Henry’s ability to speak (much less, explain more about exactly what is going on), their facility is attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a powerful warlord with telekinetic abilities who is after Henry for mysterious, though clearly nefarious reasons.
Estelle helps Henry to escape, only to be captured by Akan herself and taken hostage in order to draw Henry out. Henry, having found himself in the unfamiliar city of Moscow and with no one to help him but an enigmatic man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) – who Henry quickly comes to realize is no ordinary human being either – thus sets out on an insanely dangerous mission: rescue Estelle and stop Akan from enacting whatever this terrible plan (revolving around Henry) is that he’s concocted.
Hardcore Henry was in part inspired by the music videos that the film’s co-writer/director Ilya Naishuller created for the Russian indie rock band Biting Elbows (see “The Stampede” and “Bad Motherf***er”) – which, like Hardcore Henry, were shot in the first-person POV visual style. However, the movie is also clearly aiming to adapt popular video game tropes – both aesthetic and narrative tropes at that – to the big screen with the intention of creating an innovative (and immersive) cinematic experience that differs from that of both a conventional sci-fi action/thriller movie and a first-person POV video game that falls under the same genre. Hardcore Henry is certainly a noteworthy and ambitious experiment in that respect… which is not to say that it’s a fully successful one, too.
The Hardcore Henry narrative crafted by Naishuller and his co-writer Will Stewart offers two acts’ worth of frantically paced story build-up that culminates with a third act full of payoffs – most of which end up being either derivative and/or predictable in nature. While the film succeeds in maintaining a sense of intrigue throughout the first two-thirds of its running time by leaving so many questions surrounding Henry’s past unresolved, it’s less effective at world-building and falls short at creating a particularly interesting mythology – much less, one that begs for additional exploration in a sequel. For similar reasons, it’s never altogether clear if Hardcore Henry is aiming to send-up juvenile B-movie tropes or gleefully embrace them, as the movie works best when it sticks with either a tongue-in-cheek or straight-faced tone – not when it’s switching between them, as it frequently does throughout its running time.
Hardcore Henry isn’t the first movie to feature action sequences filmed in the first-person POV style – something that movies like the 2005 video game film adaptation Doom and even the recent Sacha Baron Coen action/comedy The Brothers Grimsby have also done – nor is it the first film released in theaters in 2016 to be shot entirely in that format, either (as the horror/sci-fi thriller Pandemic technically beat it to the punch). What Hardcore Henry does offer is a nonstop barrage of close-quarter (and usually quite graphic) violence as well as visually-inventive camera angles and shot compositions, as realized through some of the most genuinely daredevil stunt choreography and free-wheeling cinematography/camerawork this side of the Crank and The Raid movies. For those same reasons, however, Hardcore Henry will probably go down as the film of 2016 that is most likely to make you feel nauseous from watching it (due to motion sickness, that is, not the gory, over the top violence).
There are moments in Hardcore Henry where the physics of its high-octane thrills feels more grounded than it would in a video game, but on the whole the film fails short of using the first-person POV format to make its onscreen action that much more visceral than if the people and places onscreen had been rendered digitally instead of being from the real world – nor does it use Henry’s POV as a unique means for characterization, with regard to what he does or where he turns his attention at any given time in the film. It’s possible the first-person POV format, like the found-footage format, is a stylistic technique that needs to be not only integral to the story at hand being told, but also used to explore a more fully developed storyline in order to come off being more than a gimmick. Since that isn’t the case with Hardcore Henry, the film doesn’t necessarily offer a viewing experience that’s all that different from simply watching someone else play a first-person POV style video game.
Performances aren’t exactly a key element of Hardcore Henry, though Sharlto Copley is easily the film’s standout – as the actor, best known for his collaborations with Neill Blomkamp, has fun playing the role of Jimmy: a person who (without spoiling too much) changes in his demeanor and appearance scene by scene, in addition to being a character that is clearly riffing on the concept of NPCs (read: non-playable characters) in video games. By comparison, Danila Kozlovsky (Vampire Academy) is just hammy – and not much else – in the role of the diabolical and inexplicably super-powered Akan, while Haley Bennett (The Equalizer) as Estelle is a pretty generic damsel in distress for the majority of the film.
The short of it? Hardcore Henry is only partly successful at using the first person POV format to create a unique cinematic experience. The movie certainly has its moments where it excels as an innovative action/thriller, but on the whole it doesn’t present a strong case for using the first-person perspective visual style for more that limited amounts of time in a movie – though, armed with a more fully-developed creative vision behind it, perhaps a future project will make better use of the format (the same way that certain modern filmmakers have found ways to use found-footage to better effect than others). As is stands, the main reason to see Hardcore Henry in a theater is to get the experience of watching a full-blown first-person perspective thriller… and to see if you can sit through the whole film without wanting to throw up afterwards.
Hardcore Henry is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 96 minutes long and is Rated R for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section.
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