A first-person action film from the eyes of Henry, who's resurrected from death with no memory. He must discover his identity and save his wife from a warlord with a plan to bio-engineer soldiers.
April 8, 2016
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writers: Ilya Naishuller, Will Stewart
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Haley Bennett, Danlia Kozlovsky
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
It’s a novel idea. Let’s take a slick, fast-paced action movie and shoot it from first-person. The concept comes from a couple of music videos director Ilya Naishuller made for his band Biting Elbows. Shot entirely on a GoPro Hero 3 worn on the face of stuntmen, Hardcore Henry tries to place the viewer directly into the action.
After three years of production and lots of crowdfunding, the movie is finally here. Now, Hardcore Henry had its fair share of skeptics, myself included. From the trailers it looked like your post-Call of Duty 4 blockbuster first person shooter, except they didn’t hand you a controller. For the most part, I was right about this assumption–but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This film is a unique experience, a different type of action movie. If you’re coming for plot, character development, or themes other than “when you can’t shoot, stab” then you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for a fun ride, then I can promise you that you are going to have a heck of a time.
*Note: Due to the first-person nature of the movie, motion sickness is a genuine concern. There is a lot of frenetic movement, and even I (who almost never suffers from motion sickness) felt pretty queasy at some points.
Violence: Hoo boy. From the title sequence on, the movie is hitting you with over-the-top, stylized violence. It is definitely not for the faint of heart. Expect dismemberment, disemboweling, decapitation, and people getting set on fire to go along with your usual shooty/stabby fare. Imagine the violence in Deadpool, but extended to 5/6 of the movie and take it up another notch.
Sexual Content: Lots, but it’s mostly concentrated in one part of the movie. This is an effort that is earnest in its childishness, and that is very evident in the strip club scene. You have a burst of nudity, implied sex, a sex flashback, and some especially promiscuous strippers, followed quickly by more violence.
Language: At least 1/4 of this script is the f-word. The rest of most of the curse words you can think of come out to play as well.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Multiple instances of marijuana and cocaine use.
Positive Themes: Maybe you shouldn’t kill people just because a stranger tells you to.
Disclaimer: I try to refrain from docking or adding points to a movie based on how “inappropriate” a film is, so let it be noted here that if you think Christians shouldn’t watch Deadpool, then consider this me telling you not to watch this because this movie is on another level. It’s one thing to be violent and crude, and it’s another to have that be the core of your film.
Our tale opens with the titular Henry being bullied as a child. As with a few others, this scene is ten seconds of what appears to earnest filming followed by a rejection of a trope. In this case, after Henry’s father saves him, rather than hearing some encouragement, he gets “You little p*****”.” And that sets the tone.
The story really begins with Henry waking up in a lab, slowly being put back together by a strange woman (Haley Bennett). This woman reveals herself to be his wife, Estelle, in a scene that is a little more tender and touching than this movie has any right to be. It’s not meant to last, however, as before Henry’s voice modulator can be installed, big bad villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) breaks into the lab, forcing Henry and Estelle to flee. Akan manages to capture Estelle, and the rest of the film features Henry cutting an especially bloody swath across Moscow in an effort to get her back, with the aid of mysterious stranger Jimmy (Sharlto Copley).
The plot here mostly serves as a vehicle to take Henry from one action setpiece to the next, not unlike some popular video game series. During the third act, much of it revolves around cybernetic enhancement, which reminded me of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (5-years late review of that forthcoming) without all the nuance or subtlety.
If you’re looking for consistency, you’ll be looking for a while. Multiple events transpire with only the barest of explanations, and a few happen with no explanation at all. The biggest example is Akan. The film does an okay job of explaining the cyborg thing, but Akan’s telekinesis? Nothing. You just have to accept that he can move things with his mind. The mystery of Jimmy can be figured out pretty quickly, and the ending’s twist can be seen from a mile away. Still, that’s not to say that you won’t care about what’s happening. The few moments that show off Henry’s character, like when he gestures at bad guys or futilely tries to help bystanders to the violence, are somewhat effective in getting the audience on his side. You can’t help but cheer for the guy, especially since you see everything through his eyes.
The acting here is, in a word, hilarious. That’s not to say it’s especially bad. I would say… enthusiastic. Sharlto Copley, in an Orphan Black-like turn, plays most of the characters in the film, and he looks like he is having the time of his life. Maybe it’s because he mostly plays serious characters, but he takes each character he plays in this film and runs with them with very entertaining results. My personal favorite is the World War I British platoon leader.
Kozlovsky is also a riot as Akan, and the movie gets more entertaining every time he shows up on screen to ham things up. When he’s around, you can’t help but smile at how ridiculous everything is. Like the childish nature of the film, the exaggerated performances seem purposeful, as if part of a wholesale commitment to silliness. Haley Bennett’s performance presents a gray area. At first, I thought it was just bad (the moment she opened her mouth it threw me out of the movie), but after seeing the other exaggerated performances I think that it is entirely possible that she was directed to be wooden and unnatural.
The movie is definitely impressive from a technical perspective. According to the Q&A with Naishuller and Copley at The Ultimate Fan Experience, the GoPro never fell off once. Multiple different stuntmen got behind the camera as Henry, a few for large stretches of the movie and for some specialized scenes.
Since the movie is 90% action, there are a lot of stunts to be performed, and they all look great. The fight scenes became difficult to follow at a few points, but when you can see what’s happening it is very visceral and exciting, almost (exactly) like a video game. It even has a few boss fights. The movie resembling a game is not a bad thing, even if that game has the maturity level of Duke Nukem. The first person view helps with investing in Henry’s campaign, and the action scenes are varied enough to keep things fresh.
At the end of the day, if you fall into this movie’s intended market, you are going to have a thoroughly enjoyable time. At just over an hour and a half, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a quick ride that will get your adrenaline pumping. However, if you don’t fall into its intended market (which is likely if you’re not into 5th grade humor and a near-fetish of violence), then you’ll probably find it gross and/or boring.
This film is definitely not for everyone, but it definitely delivers on what it set out to do. Will it redefine the action genre? No way. But it is certainly unique, and it’s refreshing to see something like this get a shot amidst a sea of remakes and franchises. It’s silly, vapid, and immature. But it’s also a lot of fun, and sometimes that’s all you need.
+ First-person action is intense, visceral, and well-executed
+ Entertaining villain
+ Sharlto Copley
- Wildly immature
- Paper-thin plot