There’s no other feature film like “Hardcore Henry,” a first-person POV chase which sets aside typical cinematic concerns of plot and character to create a high-octane and cartoonishly violent string of action set pieces. Written and directed by Ilya Naishuller, who achieved internet fame after directing “single-take” first-person videos for his band Biting Elbows, the film is essentially a feature-length version of his “Insane Office Escape” idea with a couple famous faces (Tim Roth, briefly, and Sharlto Copley, in a plethora of guises) to glue a thin veneer of story to the relentless running, jumping, and shooting.
Simultaneously inane and impressive, “Hardcore Henry” may be the first film for the Twitch generation, a video game speedrun that monotonously grinds down its own assets until the result is little more than “Restless Leg Syndrome: The Movie.”
Extreme violence begins right in the opening titles, rendered in stark black and red. Among the brutalities, a serrated knife is pushed all the way through a man’s neck in slow motion; a bullet pierces his temple. The victim seems to be Henry, who soon wakes, bound to a medical table, attended by a woman costumed in what looks like a “sexy scientist” costume from the Spirit Halloween store. (Wearing stiletto heels, she effortlessly navigates the room’s grated floor; it’s one bit of amazing physical achievement the film never lingers on.)
Basic facts are quickly established: Henry is a technically impressive but somewhat roughly finished cyborg. He’s non-verbal, but augmented with extraordinary mechanical enhancements. The woman, Estelle (Haley Bennett), claims to be his wife, but with no memories to speak of, Henry must take her word for it. Then telekinetic psychopath Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) whisks away Estelle, and Henry’s flight from the villain, and a desire to rescue Estelle, sets him on the run and into 90 minutes of “and then” plot construction.
Anyone who has played a first-person shooter video game will find the opening of “Hardcore Henry” to be incredibly familiar, as Naishuller uses industry-standard opening tropes, beat for beat, to set Henry’s mad dash in motion. Video games (and now many movies) use the “girl in your ear” device to provide exposition and plot structure. Here, that task falls to Sharlto Copley, playing a succession of figures (a hedonistic stoner, a British military officer, a punk right out of 1977, and more) who aid and/or manipulate Henry in his quest to find Estelle.
While the GoPro-shot images are a blur of content movement, the real energy in the film is generated by Copley. He gets a chance to play a whole busload of characters, and the explanation for his constantly shifting appearance is the film’s only vaguely compelling mystery, albeit one that most will be able to guess within the first act. (Copley even gets a dance number, crafted with bizarre humor that nearly achieves Monty Python levels of absurdity.)
Even less satisfying is Estelle’s role in the story, which leads to a climax that offers up two equally gross visions of romantic relationships, fully souring an experience that was already growing unpalatably stale. The ideas about women in “Hardcore Henry” are, at best, nasty and puerile.
Naishuller shows no interest in developing scenes for drama or thrills outside the most immediate visual spectacle. Like video-game stages, situations are established, great violence ensues, then Henry moves or is forced forward. The “hero,” such as he is, appears indestructible, undermining any suspense or tension in the action. It won’t take a savvy audience to understand there’s no reason to care about anything. One standard pull quote for action films might read something like “a roller-coaster ride of action!” This film is the most like a roller coaster I’ve ever seen; static and regimented and, without even the physical sensation of movement, as emotionally distant as a cold, dead star.
The first-person video does occasionally offer a thrilling immediacy, most typically when the action slows enough to allow audiences to drink in the physical performances and consider how the choreography was designed. A chase across the top of a bridge is impressive, as are stages, sorry, scenes, that involve parkour and heights. But most parkour is a lot more impressive when we can see the person performing it; being stuck in the first-person POV often boils the action down to a blurry mush.
Video-game theory often addresses the divide in emotional connection between first- and third-person games, and “Hardcore Henry” falls into all the pitfalls of the first-person perspective without offering much in exchange. Its primary currency is the novelty of the format as applied to cinema, but that wears thin. I often thought during the film that I’d happily play the video-game version, which could be paused and replayed, or approached at an individual’s pace to linger on specific details. The personality of a game is in fact a union between code and player. The popularity of Twitch isn’t just the games, but the players who draw subscribers. “Hardcore Henry” has the game aesthetic without that injection of personality, like Toht’s incomplete headpiece for the Staff of Ra. “Take back one Kadam to honor the player who was left out of this story.”
Sure, there’s a bit of spectacle to the film’s utterly ridiculous violence. Even that dulls, however, without character or stakes to inject urgency into the parade of broken bodies. A film like Peter Jackson‘s “Dead Alive” is a good demonstration of an approach that succeeds, and an example of just how difficult it can be to craft extreme violence in a way that really connects with an audience. That “Hardcore Henry” features an explicit reminder of “Dead Alive,” in one instance of total bodily destruction, doesn’t help.
Similarly, the film’s production company name Versus Pictures may not be intended to create an explicit link to low-budget millennial-era Japanese genre films such as Ryuhei Kitamura‘s 2000 film “Versus” or the many quickies made by Takashi Miike, but the similarity exists regardless. “Hardcore Henry” could be the most visible in a new generation of down and dirty action/genre pictures to follow that era in Japanese cinema, and the go-for-the-throat approach and almost vicious streak of rebelliousness in this movie are admirable.
With grim violence, cynical humor, and grubby aesthetic, this film appears to achieve everything it sets out to do. It’s what the film disregards that reveals how limited its approach really is. There is certainly a way to create a first-person POV film that would be more involving on all levels, but this is a first-stage experiment which, like Henry himself, needs a significant polish before it can be called a truly effective achievement. [C-]