From its inception as music videos for director Ilya Naishuller’s band Biting Elbows, Hardcore Henry boasted an unique central idea: crafting a well told action film entirely through the first person perspective on Go Pro cameras. Its many trailers and clips brought on comparisons to videogames and first person shooters, so I figured it’d be interesting to watch a film where I’m ostensibly in the driver’s seat.
But rather than take control of Hardcore Henry‘s experience, the viewer is relegated to the passenger seat. Passively weaving in and out of a narrative while caring little about it.
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Director: Ilya Naishuller
Release Date: April 8th, 2016
Cheesy as it is, Hardcore Henry is about you. When “Henry” (the audience) wakes up in a mysterious facility with no memory of how he got there, his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) explains that he’s suffered major disfigurement from an accident and this facility has put him back together using machinery (basically a more violent version of the Six Million Dollar Man). Then some shadow organization chases Henry down for 90 minutes. And all while during this, a mysterious man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and his many faces seems to be the only one who knows what’s going on.
While I’d hate to classify the film in such basic terms, comparisons to a videogame narrative are unfortunately apt. Hardcore Henry gleefully revels in juvenile wish fulfillment. You’ll sit back and watch Henry mow down waves of spawning enemies (with little to nothing to distinguish between any of them), you’ll see him utilize a variety of weapons he apparently loots from dead bodies, and you’ll watch as he peers around corridors and fights in hallways. Every trope from first person shooter videogames is represented and, for a while, it’s fun to see unfold. Characters make quips, the first person perspective leads to some enlightening action angles, and there’s definitely a joy and humor to how grotesque its violence gets as it goes on. But after about fifteen minutes of these action scenes, the premise wears thin and the film turns into a collection of hollow gore shots trying to outdo one another in order to garner some kind of reaction. And that’s only including the ones you can manage to follow.
Hardcore Henry is so focused on how cool things might look it forgets to tell any kind of story. The film essentially puts all of its eggs in one basket as it hopes the flow of the action will keep you invested. Unlike most action films, Henry‘s voiceless and faceless protagonist can’t add anything to the overarching story. He’s got no personality, no defining traits other than a relentless need to kill (for some reason that’s never quite elaborated on), and it’s not like Henry is an all inclusive point of view either as there as some unfortunate homophobic jokes thrown in the mix and it’s heavily male friendly as it vies for that sweet 13 year old Mountain Dew demographic. So you can’t even fully immerse yourself as a viewer as multiple moments in the narrative remind you Henry isn’t you. At least when videogame narratives do things like this, it eventually hands back control to the individual and gives you other options for immersion. There’s just nothing here to latch onto.
The film’s one saving grace is by and far Sharlto Copley. He’s an absolute joy every time he’s on screen. It’s just a shame he has to singlehandedly carry the film’s weight. He’s stuck providing so much exposition, jokes, and personality it’s kind of running him thin. It’s also not helped by the unintelligible scene settings. Henry ends up in several locations with no way other than Copley’s Jimmy to help discern where the action is taking place. The film could take place anywhere between an entire city length and the walking distance between my kitchen and bathroom. The film’s main device seems to be holding it back in that visual respect. In reference to an old Simpsons gag, every time Jimmy wasn’t on screen I felt myself wondering when he was going to show up again. But I wonder if that’s because I wanted more of Copley or I was just starved for something to get me through the rest of the film like a lone floating log in the middle of Hardcore Henry‘s bleak and monotonous ocean of gore.
Hardcore Henry touts itself as a cinematic experience. The first action film of its kind, it’s certainly going to get a lot of attention and praise based on existence alone. But it’s lacking the level of immersion or direction its premise promises.
If I really had to compare it to videogames, watching Hardcore Henry is like going over to a buddy’s house and watching him play a game for an hour. It looks neat, and there are bound to be some things that grab your attention, but before long you’ll be so bored you’d rather be at home.