A film review by Craig J. Koban April 17, 2016


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.  

HARDCORE 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. 

Maybe both. 

HARDCORE 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 never mind. 



With 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.  

Some 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. 

And 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.   

However, 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.  

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