HARDCORE HENRY ˝
R, 96 mins.
2016, R, 96 mins.
Haley Bennett as Estelle / Sharlto Copley as Jimmy / Danila Kozlovskiy as Akan / Cyrus Arnold as Nat / Ilya Naishuller as Tim
Written and directed by Ilya Naishuller
For years critics have frequently bemoaned that many modern Hollywood action films look and feel like simplistically adrenalized video games.
HENRY is a new action thriller that goes well out of its way
to ostensibly mimic the aesthetic of video games (more specifically, first
person shooters) throughout its 96-minute running time.
The feature film debut of Russian director Ilya Naishuller –
inspired by the stylistic choices of his two previous short films THE
STAMPEDE and BAD MOHTERFUCKER – HARDCORE HENRY was entirely shot using
GoPro cameras, which in turn makes seemingly every single shot in the
film appear like it's from the perspective of its faceless and silent
protagonist. This POV gimmick has been done before in movies, but not to the fanatically
committed lengths that Naishuller employs here. Even days after leaving my screening of the film I’m still
internally debating whether this is a work of mad and inspired genius or a
one-note celebration of macabre sadism that pummeled me into submission.
HENRY, at the very least, has an intriguing setup.
The titular “hero” (if you can even call him that) is a cyborg,
of sorts, that also happens to be an amnesiac.
As the film opens he desperately tries to make some semblance of
sense of his unknown surroundings while having various parts of his anatomy plugged into
a vast computer system. In
comes Estelle (Haley Bennett), a beautiful scientist – claiming to be his
wife – that’s finalizing the procedure to make him a super empowered
robotic machine (she screws on his new limbs much like a child would do
the same for an action figure). Crashing
the party is the vile and despotic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a creepy and
telekinetically powerful albino that seems to have a real bone to pick
with Henry. Now, as to why or
how Akan has telekinetic powers the film never once fully explains, but
Estelle’s help, Henry is able to free himself from his restraints and
make a break for it (in a sensationally rendered sequence involving
skydiving in a tiny pod down to the earth from an extremely high
altitude). Of course, poor ol’
Henry has no real idea what's happening, who he should trust, or what he
should do next. What he is
sure of, though, is that he’s remarkably adept at…killing…largely
thanks to his newly acquired enhancements, which have made him limitlessly
dexterous, insanely strong, and seemingly impervious to most forms of pain.
Separated from Estelle, Henry embarks of a violent cat and mouse
chase with Akan and his foot soldiers, but he does find a confidant (or
should I say confidants) in Jimmy (an ape-shit gonzo and go-for-broke
Sharlto Copley), a mysterious figure that serves as Henry’s guide while
displaying a godlike ability to die and re-spawn multiple times in
different forms and personalities. With Jimmy serving as a much needed deliverer of vital
information, Henry slowly begins to piece together his shadowy past and
prepares for an inevitable showdown with Akan.
to me have described HARDCORE HENRY as being “morally repugnant.”
That’s somewhat apt. Yet, the
film never really apologizes for being a maliciously sustained orgy of
pornographic violence. It
could easily be argued that the film exists to be a supreme exercise in
style and a disorienting engine designed to shock viewers. On purely technical
terms, HARDCORE HENRY is a frequently exhilarating masterstroke work in its
already very oversaturated genre. Because
the entirety of the film is from Henry’s POV, this provides Naishuller
and company with a series of ever-increasingly difficult challenges to up the ante
in terms of how to orchestrate the action to higher plateaus of absurdity from
scene to scene. The directorial showmanship displayed in the film is pretty exemplary,
highlighting sequence after sequence of Henry mowing his way through
countless numbers of Akan’s men in the most gleefully barbaric manner
possible. Bodies are punched, kicked, shot, stabbed, sliced
up, crushed, set on fire,
driven over, and sometimes blown up.
On a level of delivering on its intended promises to drench the
story with artery spewing and bone crunching mayhem, HARDCORE HENRY is in
a whole class to itself.
complaining that the film is, yes, like
a video game is a lazy and redundant descriptor at best.
There have been many movies that have been adapted from video game
sources, to be sure, but HARDCORE HENRY is quite possibly the first to
stridently acknowledge its influences by fully embracing the style of one
of its most prevailing and popular of genres…and without actually being
based on any single video game series to boot.
Any attempt at narrative and thematic exploration here are null and
void. The only character
that’s developed with any measure of modest interest is Copley’s
Jimmy, perhaps because – like a video game character that dies
repeatedly and is brought back to life at a moment’s notice – he
radically changes appearance and mood at the drop of a hat, keeping
Henry – and the audience – unhinged and guessing as to what outlandish
extreme the film will careen down next.
Copley is so endearingly histrionic and all over the proverbial map
with his hyper-caffeinated performance that he all but steals the film
from everyone else; he’s
simply a powder keg of deliriously entertaining lunacy throughout.
here are a few rather problematic questions: What am I supposed to care
about in this film? Moreover,
does any character here really command and earn my rooting interest?
Considering that HARDCORE HENRY is a relentless series of
methodically gory action vignettes, it becomes really difficult to invest
in Henry’s cause. Since we
never even see his face and his ability to communicate is via head nods
and shakes, Henry becomes a fairly blank and emotionless character whose
only definable characteristic is his savagery while defending himself.
The villain as well fares no better, seeing as Kozlovsky’s
performance is more cartoonish than disturbing; plus, this homicidal maniac’s
motives are never wholly embellished. For certain, when HARDCORE HENRY finally arrives at its
climatic confrontation between Henry, Akan, and his minions – all set to
the background pop stylings of Queen raging on the soundtrack – it’s
undeniably and breathlessly intense, but I found myself feeling
emotionally empty when it finally concluded.
One last thing: The makers of HARDCORE HENRY forget one fundamental thing that’s paramount to the whole singular pleasure of gaming – a sense that you are actively in control of your actions. HARDCORE HENRY makes you feel like you’re witnessing its character’s minute-by-minute actions from his intimate prerogative, but you nevertheless are just a passive participant in it. You control nothing. In painstakingly replicating the allure of FPS games, the film doesn’t understand what makes playing these games so innately pleasurable. HARDCORE HENRY bursts with consummate and audacious filmmaking craft, but it's ultimately a modest gimmick that has been needlessly stretched out to a feature film running time. And for as superficially awe inspiring and glossy as it is as a kinetic visual odyssey, the film has all the joy of watching your buddy play a video game on the couch next to you, which is ultimately why it feels like a cagey experiment that never fully pays off as handsomely as it thinks it does.