Hardcore Henry is the dream of 1990s video games come to life. It’s a movie that fully realizes some video game makers’ horny pursuit of the hyperreal, only to invert that desire with viscerally cartoonish results. In this action movie, the real world operates on video game logic. You’ll probably wish you had a gamepad in your hands, along with a barf bag.
[This review originally ran on March 14 at 2:01pm]
Hardcore Henry started life as a short. A proof-of-concept clip wowed folks on the Internet over a year ago and director Ilya Naishuller mounted a crowdfunding campaign to finish the post-production after all the buzz. The movie was primarily shot with modified GoPro cameras to recreate the camera view so prevalent in the medium’s first-person shooter subgenre. That means the camera is constantly shaking, swooping and bouncing as the stunts and fights assault the screen in rapid succession.
I can play most FPS games without getting nauseous. But the first time I saw a trailer for Hardcore Henry in a theater it made me want to barf. The movie’s even worse. Even if you don’t bat an eye at ultraviolence such as folks getting their chests ripped open, you’ll need a strong stomach (or some Dramamine) to enjoy Hardcore Henry.
It comes out in wide release on April 8, but I saw Hardcore Henry last night at its U.S. premiere at South by Southwest. The movie’s opening credits roll out on top of photorealistic, computer-generated slo-mo scenes of violence. A combat knife puncturing the skin on one side of a neck and coming out the other. A bullet opening the flesh just above some hapless dude’s left eyebrow. These flashes set the tone for the film, a project which glories in the most hyperbolic sort of video game violence.
After an accident somewhere in his fractured past, Henry’s been rebuilt into an amnesiac cyborg super-killer. Its plot is a by-the-numbers, save-the-princess affair where the titular character tears through Moscow in pursuit of Estelle (Haley Bennett), the sexy scientist wife who resurrected him. She’s been kidnapped by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a eurotrash supervillain warlord with telepathic powers.
Henry’s sole ally in his quest is a man named Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley. Minutes after pulling Henry’s fat out of the fire, showing him his life bar and explaining that the hero only has 30 minutes to live, Jimmy gets shot in the head. Then he shows up again. And dies again. And shows up again. Jimmy’s multiple resurrections are another nod to video game tropes and a way for Copley to play multiple character types in a big, broad performance. Copley’s proclivity for goofy affectations gets put to good use here. One minute, he’s a coked-up slimeball in an orgy at a strip club, then next he’s a 1970s punk rock malcontent or a stiff-upper-lip style WWII British soldier. He’s clearly having fun, and his over-the-top mannerisms reminded me a bit of the late Robin Williams at his most manic.
Hardcore Henry comes across like an update of the Cannon Group/Golan Globus machine that churned out movie franchises like Delta Force, American Ninja and Death Wish. Hell, at one point, Jimmy says, “Good job, Charlie Bronson.” It fuses the adolescent, jerk-off humor of 1990s action movies and video games like Commando and Duke Nukem with a bit of retro grimy low-budget approach. Slick Dmitry, a miniboss whose heart Henry has to pull out and rip apart to get a health upgrade, calls him “half-machine, half-pussy” during a chase scene. The film revels in its coarseness, but that doesn’t excuse a regrettable homophobic and sexist undercurrent. Hardcore Henry doesn’t need that stuff, because the biggest star in Hardcore Henry is the action itself.
The cinematography on display is dizzying, documenting a near-constant maelstrom of crazy stunts, fight choreography and reckless abandon. A running gunfight seamlessly transitions into first-person parkour climbing up a building and then into a car chase. Henry accepts missions via cell phone call, just like in Grand Theft Auto V, and has to use peek-around-corners stealth in some parts of the movie, too. Some set pieces will remind game-loving audiences of Mirror’s Edge, Assassin’s Creed or Serious Sam. It all happens through camera wobble seemingly designed to recreate history’s worst hangovers. Watching this movie is an endurance test. Naishuller does sprinkle some breaks in, though, mostly through comedic or expository scenes that layer in backstory and motivation.
Depending on your tastes, Hardcore Henry is either a fun movie about the worst parts of video games or a great movie about the best part of video games. More specifically, what Naishuller draws on here is a stereotype of what people think the entire video game medium is like, a prevailing notion driven by the commercial success of a particular genre. In every scene where Henry picks up a new weapon, the camera frames it as a significant occurrence, just as it would in a Call of Duty or Halo game. Jimmy even shows up in a ghillie-suit sniper outfit and gives affectionate names to his favorite weapons. You can feel the heft of the moment as it foreshadows an upgrade to the violence about to happen. Naishuller’s attempt at channeling a FPS aesthetic in a cinematic experience comes during a cultural moment when developers are aiming for more meaningful narrative journey first-person video games. Indie games like Gone Home, Sunset and Firewatch all eschew the violence-as-resolution paradigm and try with that specific camera angle to embed players in the emotions and psyche of their main characters. Henry feels a bit behind the times in that regard, not quite up to date with the leading edge of video game narrative aspiration.
But Hardcore Henry doesn’t harbor any ambitions with regards to nuance or narrative complexity. It prioritizes moment-to-moment action over all else, aiming to alchemize substance out of its stylistic choices. The film is an exercise in technical bravado.
Its finale has one of its best set pieces, a fight where Henry has to put down a squadron of undead soldiers who are killing machines just like him. It’s the opposite of the Burly Brawl from The Matrix Revolutions: gory, up close and inelegant, realized through practical effects and very little CGI. It’s a signifying sequence where moments that would be quicktime events in a video game come to life with real-world grit.
Hardcore Henry is filled with fight scenes that will make audiences gasp, shot through with a sense of adrenaline-fueled improvisation that buoys it up when its central gimmick wears thin. Naishuller’s gamble largely works, as the film does capture what it’d be like to be inside a first-person shooter. You’d be mentally and physically sick, for sure, but it’d make for one impressive spectacle.