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In an age of rampant video diaries and increasingly sophisticated gaming experiences, the idea of a movie shot entirely in first person is so obvious it’s surprising that the genre hasn’t already taken off. The Russian action-thriller “Hardcore” takes the jump, and keeps jumping, so eager to exploit the powers of the lightweight GoPro camera that director Ilya Naishuller never even considers the possibility of taking a breath. Even Sharlto Copley, in a show-stealing supporting role that finds him playing multiple versions of himself, becomes a part of the overall gimmick.
That’s not to say that “Hardcore” isn’t a fun, wild ride. Depicting the experiences of a “Robocop”-like resurrected cyborg on the lam from devious authorities, the movie largely unfolds within the conventions of the first-person shooter, thus making its central conceit less revolutionary to anyone versed in that process.
Nevertheless, Naishuller delivers as much visual spice as relentless pace, with expertly enhanced CGI that allows the protagonist to traverse numerous environments: It begins in a laboratory high in the clouds, speeds through the streets of Moscow and ends in a helicopter. In between, there’s a lot of fragmentary dialogue about a murky plot involving genetic cloning, ominous psychic powers, and batteries buried in beating hearts.
The conspiratorial events of “Hardcore” never quite make sense, and its restless camera can be more disorienting than exciting or tense. At times, it excels as a highfalutin attempt at post-modern pastiche, importing the ceaseless adrenaline rush of the “Crank” movies to a jittery twenty-first century paradigm. Yet it never crystallizes into a singular experience, and instead collapses in a rush of well-intentioned innovations.
With only a pair of hands regularly hovering near the front of the frame to indicate the mute protagonist’s disposition, “Hardcore” doesn’t exactly have much a leading man, though he’s identified as Henry. Waking up in a laboratory to the gentle encouragement of his apparent scientist-wife Estelle (Haley Bennet), Henry witnesses his reassembly in a series of nicely rendered 3D graphics, with a robotic arm and foot quickly attaching themselves to his damaged limbs. Just as he’s on the brink of receiving a voice box, however, the lab’s invaded by a blond, fiery-eyed lunatic (Danila Kozlovsky), whose ability to toss people and items around from afar takes a page right out of the Darth Vader playbook.
In a bracing sequence that finds Henry and Estelle darting through tunnels and eventually hurtling miles downward, the couple escapes to the streets, where more trouble awaits. Eventually, Henry’s rescued by Jimmy (Copley), who keeps getting killed and yet somehow resurfaces in another body — sometimes moments later — to provide Henry with yet more crucial advice for his next moves.
As Henry gets pummeled from ever direction and gradually gets used to his abilities as a killing machine, “Hardcore” mimics the educational process through which most mainstream games tutor players in their internal logic. From a technical perspective alone, there’s plenty to appreciate. Zipping across land and air, “Hardcore” is a marvel of spatial navigation. One continuing shot finds Henry launching from a helicopter to the ground, then moments later getting bucked from a horse. As he mounts tanks, scales buildings and pummels his way through countless shootouts, Henry’s dilemma offers a bracing, immediate trip.
But it’s also a relentlessly queasy one. In an apparent bid to mimic the character’s head movements — as well as a means of masking various editing techniques — “Hardcore” regularly uses flash pans to shift from moment to moment, oftentimes making it difficult to follow the precise action-driven developments. (If viewed in 3D, it could yield a new genre of vomit-inducing thrills.) Produced by Russian action-fantasy maestro Timur Bekmambetov (“Nightfall,” “Wanted”), the movie resembles Bekmambetov’s tendency to push stylized narratives to a breaking point. Naishuller previously used the first-person approach for his music video “Bad Motherfucker,” and it unquestionably has a more palatable quality in the bite-sized format.
Though “Hardcore” certainly shows off the versatility of the GoPro, it falls short of developing a strong complimentary story, and no amount of inventive Copley appearances can disguise that. Since Henry doesn’t talk, the experience of “Hardcore” puts the viewer in the role of a gamer with no agency. We’re strapped in for a ride, but there’s a reason most rollercoasters don’t last longer than a few minutes.
Still, Copley seems committed to bringing some semblance of life to an otherwise mechanical plot. Cropping up in countless outfits and dying just as many times, he’s the movie’s best special effect. In one standout moment, the character reveals his musical abilities by singing a Frank Sinatra song in a series of bodies and costumes, while Henry’s head whips around the room. (One has to wonder about the kind of GoPro magic Busby Berkeley would have cooked up.) Singing and collapsing again and again, Copley’s big number forms the best merging of performance and technique in a movie that struggles valiantly to keep up with its own bursts of inspiration.
Generally, “Hardcore” tends toward sadistic showdowns that verge on monotony. A climactic fight scene set to Queen shows Henry taking on a slew of anonymous white-clad baddies, but it’s only one fragment of a seemingly endless battle. Fragmented, unwieldy and gleefully immature, “Hardcore” burns through its main ideas early on and just keeps rearranging them.
That might be sufficient if it truly were a groundbreaking cinematic achievement, but “Hardcore” doesn’t even mark the first occasion of a feature-length project shot on the GoPro. That honor goes to the 2012 experimental fishing documentary “Leviathan,” an eye-popping, next-level endeavor in which the filmmakers literally tossed their cameras off the sides of shipping vessels to see what they could nab.
The results range from a fish’s perspective of the world to the tumbling shot of upside down seagulls. At every moment, “Leviathan” has the elevated quality of visual poetry. The movie uses its technology in a liberating fashion that hints at the possibility of ceding directorial control to the laws of nature. “Hardcore,” by comparison, remains firmly chained to earth.
“Hardcore Henry” is in theaters now.