A fantastical action extravaganza produced by “Wanted” mastermind Timur Bekmambetov and shot entirely on GoPro cameras, Ilya Naishuller’s “Hardcore Henry” (née “Hardcore”) adopts the first-person perspective of a first-person shooter video game in a radical attempt to bring viewers closer inside the madness. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015, where it sparked a bidding war and ultimately sold for a massive sum of $10 million. Despite also nabbing the fest’s coveted Audience Award, “Hardcore” quickly emerged as the most polarizing thing to come out of Canada since Justin Bieber. The critical response was all over the map.
Despite promising to be the future of action cinema, “Hardcore Henry” underperformed on its opening weekend, raising urgent questions as to what sort of spectacles experiments audiences are willing to see on the big screen. Is the movie a radical step forward in a tired genre, or is it a noxious misuse of nascent technology? Could this finally be the nail in the coffin of the longstanding wisdom that teenage boys are Hollywood’s most coveted demographic? Indiewire’s Senior Film Critic David Ehrlich exchanged some emails with Time Out New York’s Film Editor Joshua Rothkopf — who wrote a five-star rave — to get to the bottom of it.
DAVID: Hey, Joshua! To begin with, even with the film’s box office failure, I need to concede that I’m probably fighting an uphill battle. One problem with “Hardcore Henry” — or at least one explanation for it — is that there’s no way to describe the movie without making it sound completely awesome. Even its most spirited detractors might be inclined to describe it as ‘”Crank’ meets ‘The Lady in the Lake,'” and who wouldn’t want to see that!?
And yet, at the risk of understating the case, this movie made me want to die. Well, not die, per se, so much as…not be alive anymore. When the lights came up in the theater and I was finally released from this rickety thrill-ride’s toxic grip, I couldn’t believe that some of the people around me seemed to have enjoyed it — perhaps that’s an appropriate reaction for a film that’s so locked in to one person’s point of view.
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JOSHUA: Hello, friend. Congrats on the new gig. Your timing couldn’t have been more perfect: Indiewire is the esteemed resource for independent filmmaking, and “Hardcore Henry” is the most technically advanced indie in years (check out the movie’s successful Indiegogo page for some cool wire-removal shots and a complimentary “gun mug” for $45 contributors).
Seriously, I feel your pain. It must be hard, as you say, to describe a movie that sounds so awesome and still insist that it blows. I don’t pretend to understand such compartmentalization. Then again, I have been in theaters surrounded by people who are positively vibrating with glee over a film (e.g., the Sundance premiere of “Napoleon Dynamite”), but felt like Kevin McCarthy among the pod people of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
There is something experiential about “Hardcore Henry.” And while the “you had to be there” argument is a weak one, I can’t help but wonder if you had been at Toronto’s cavernous Ryerson Theatre for the first packed midnight screening, you might have had a completely different reaction. I was also seated next to a noted roller-coaster enthusiast, so we were strapped in for a ride.
DAVID: But “Hardcore Henry,” despite ostensibly putting viewers inside the action, doesn’t feel immersive in the slightest. Yes, this is one of the few movies that actually earns the lazy knock of “looking like a video game,” but it’s crucially missing the hands-on involvement that defines the medium that it’s aping so transparently. In the age of VR, this feels like a stop-gap at best, and a vicious migraine at worst. It’s the myth of total cinema retold for the video game generation, as every “realistic” flourish just further removed me from the experience — I wasn’t ducking every time an explosion went off so much as I was looking for the pause button on my controller.
A coherent narrative is probably the only thing that could have encouraged me to suspend (or fully expel) disbelief, but Naishuller shares the same juvenile storytelling sensibilities as his producer Bekmambetov, who once built a movie around a magical “loom of fate” that supposedly told Morgan Freeman which people he ought to have assassinated. In fact, “Hardcore Henry” barely has any characters, let alone an identifiable plot. If anything, it feels like a metaphor for cinema as a whole: destroyed and freakishly reimagined in a mess of spare parts and new technologies, but to unclear ends.
JOSHUA: “Hardcore Henry” means nothing. I need it to mean nothing, to even approach this kind of euphoria-in-plasticity defense. I don’t play first-person shooters (which this film essentially is), or any video games at all, really. I’m floored by the movie’s bodily commitment: a combination of practical in-camera daredevilry, agile cinematography — these guys basically had to be stuntmen — and an almost gallery-worthy level of pure abstraction. You’re not following a story here, just watching a stream of ass-kicking.
That last notion is the sticking point. Some will find the flow exhilarating, others interminable. When I used to obsess over Jackie Chan films, I would fast-forward to the action scenes, since all of the narrative elements I needed were baked into the grammar itself: long takes, a respect for physicality, stretches of punching and leaping that almost produced a kind of delirium.
DAVID: What pains me most about “Hardcore Henry” is that I reflexively want to defend it. Action movies are stale. They’re also few and far between in an age (of Ultron) when the genre has been largely co-opted by weightless superhero fare — last year’s “Fury Road” was such a breath of fresh air because of its tactile stunts and physical reality, and I feel as though I have to admit at least a grudging respect for anything that’s going to do what it can to keep that going, and perhaps even push it forward. And this is typically the kind of film we rely on to do just that — there’s a recklessness inherent to all forms of artistic progress.
With a few exceptions, it’s the nutty innovators who push the needle forward; the masters are not usually the ones sticking their necks out. When the Allied forces landed on Normandy Beach, the generals weren’t the first ones off the boats.
Ilya Naishuller is no general. This guy is a grunt with big vision and small ideas. Inspired fools tend to pave the way forward and take the first line of fire, while the future climbs over the corpses they leave behind.
JOSHUA: I’m a little shocked that nobody died. Isn’t Ilya Naishuller’s action movie not impressively hard to make? I hated the people who told me how hard it was to make “The Revenant” — how hard it was to eat raw bison liver, how hard it was to shoot in the wilderness with only the glimmer of a multimillion-dollar Oscar campaign and 20 swimsuit models as a finish line. But “Hardcore” is different. Yes, there’s a ton of CGI, but not in the assistance of these stunts, including wall-walking parkour, driving through explosions, and leaping off moving trucks and cars.
DAVID: Perhaps those stunts would have left more of an impression had they not all been in the service of Bekmambentov’s juvenile vision. Some backstory: I’ve long harbored a (fan) theory that “Hardcore Henry” producer Timur Bekmabentov is the antichrist. Between directing “Wanted” and “Night Watch,” and producing the likes of “Apollo 18,” there doesn’t really seem like much room for debate on the matter. Naturally, he’s also the mastermind behind this summer’s forthcoming remake of “Ben-Hur.” It takes a special kind of person to watch any previous cinematic telling of that story and think, “You know what this breathtakingly immense visual epic could use? More CG and less everything else.”
JOSHUA: I’m completely with you on Timur Bekmamtebov, a Putinesque nouveau-riche glitz king to Alexander Sokurov’s Soviet-style handwringer. But I don’t feel Timur’s aesthetic in “Hardcore Henry” — which makes sense, since he didn’t make the film. Of all the things this movie throws at your face, you won’t find computerized bats. You can watch Naishuller’s original 2013 short, “Bad Motherfucker” (now seen by over 32 million people on YouTube), and observe how his concept has been pretty consistent from the start.
DAVID: Well, clearly his vision worked on the small screen, but does this seem like the future of action cinema? Can you imagine a world where studio tentpoles and Marvel movies embrace this pliable technology and adopt the aggressive, in-your-face approach that it makes possible? Or do you think that “Hardcore Henry” is going to be remembered as a strange curio defined by its technique, like “Russian Ark” but without the brains?
JOSHUA: Will Hollywood come calling? It’s a hard question to answer. Ridley Scott used GoPro on “The Martian” (another favorite of yours), but until someone decides to make a first-person narrative like “Lady in the Lake,” I wonder if the shooting strategy will have any impact. That said, one of the most jaw-dropping stunts in recent Hollywood history could have come right out of “Hardcore Henry”: It’s from “The Bourne Ultimatum” and it’s when Matt Damon leaps from one building through another building’s glass window, and the camera follows him through the air. (Start this clip at the 1:05 mark.) A creative stunt coordinator can always find a way to use the gimmick.
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It’s also worth noting that “Hardcore Henry” is not an actor’s film — that’s putting it politely. The cameraman is the actor. Unless you have clowns like Sharlto Copley willing to be second bananas, that’s another reason why the studios might not follow suit.
DAVID: Well, Sharlto Copley’s role in the movie is one of the most video game things about it — he’s the guy leading us through the tutorial level, or at least he would be if he weren’t a constant presence all the way through the film’s hateful final scene. It’s hard what to make of that dude, anymore. He’s like Nicolas Cage without the years of built-up respect. But I think you’ve hit upon one of the major reasons why the movie performed so poorly at the box office this weekend: Action movies are extremely difficult to sell without a brand or a star, and “Hardcore Henry” boasts neither. Audiences often say they want to have new experiences, but they often only shill out for what they recognize.
JOSHUA: Careful: I don’t know if we can view “Hardcore Henry’s” poor performance as some kind of referendum on the audience’s unwillingness to embrace new things. One might also generalize that moviegoers prefer so-so Melissa McCarthy comedies to shitty superhero movies, when we both know there are more complex factors feeding into that outcome.
I winced when I read about the film’s distribution deal out of Toronto, which guaranteed a wide opening in thousands of theaters. That seemed like a mistake then, just as it does now. If it had opened limited, it would have killed. The last indie movie this formally adventurous was “The Blair Witch Project,” which enjoyed a platform release, starting small in 27 theaters and widening out. Eventually it was playing on over 2,500 screens. That would have been the way to do it.
Perhaps there’s a life for “Hardcore Henry” at home, streaming in between nightlong sessions of “Call of Duty.” That would be a sad ending for a film that’s almost shocking when received in the context of a theatrical setting. It will be more imitated than seen, more admired than enjoyed.