In the past, when movie critics wanted to dismiss a film that traded action for plot in under ten words, they’d describe as being ‘just like a videogame’.
This description may have been fair back in the 90s and early 00s, but as anyone who has played a videogame in the last ten years can attest, games have come on in leaps and bounds as a storytelling medium. They still have a long way to go before they can stand up to the giants in film and television, but there are tons of videogames – BioShock, The Wolf Among Us, Gone Home and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt among them – that tell great stories.
Hardcore Henry, by contrast, fits the vintage film critics’ bill of being ‘just like a videogame’ in many respects. Not only does it trade action for plot – the latter of which is so nonsensical it would probably be rejected by contemporary gaming developers – but it references and leans heavily on gaming tropes.
The film is the brainchild of Russian director Ilya Naishuller, who gained a substantial amount of attention for the two music videos he produced for Biting Elbows (‘The Stampede’ and ‘Bad Motherf*cker’). Both were essentially mini-action films that were shot entirely from the perspective of their protagonist, and both went viral as a result.
Hardcore Henry takes the premise from both of those videos and stretches it out to feature length. The movie plays like a frenetic First Person Shooter (FPS) complete with gunfights, fistfights, chase sequences, driving sections and a protagonist who is both mute and seemingly invincible.
The story kicks off with Henry waking up in a lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A woman claiming to be his wife, Estelle (played by Haley Bennett) explains that he was in an accident that cost him two limbs and while she attaches two robotic appendages to him, she says his memory will return in time. Henry’s then introduced to a couple of lab techs who begin to install his voice module, but before this happens, all hell breaks loose.
The lab is invaded by a group of identikit soldiers led by a creep named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) who possess powerful telekinetic abilities. Turns out Henry was part of a project he had to build an army of super soldiers and he’s not very impressed that Estelle was keeping the progress she was making secret from him.
After a frantic escape from the lab – which just happens to be on an airship – Estelle and Henry are separated by Akan’s goons. Henry runs into a bloke called Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who seems to know the score – that Henry is a cyborg and his battery life is on a short clock – and then the film devolves into a series of chases and battles as Henry attempts to reunite with Estelle. Hilarity ensues.
The action in Hardcore Henry is breakneck and almost non-stop. Indeed, Naishuller deserves a few bows for both the film’s choreography and ingenuity. While there are a lot of moments in which viewers may feel disorientated (or even nauseous), the action never feels one-note and Hardcore Henry contains some set-pieces that’ll leave jaws on the floor; a scene in which Henry battles a clone army on the roof of a skyscraper in one near-unbroken shot beggars belief.
However, the movie’s frenetic pace won’t suit everyone’s taste and, once the initial novelty of the film’s POV camera wears off – which happens about ten minutes after the opening credits – Hardcore Henry reveals itself to be a one-trick pony. Aside from the odd wince-inducing frame, the ultra violence that runs throughout the film gradually numbs the viewer and since the nonsensical plot is simply a framework to hang set pieces on, it’s not exactly engrossing.
Funnily enough, the videogame tropes Hardcore Henry references and uses are both the film’s biggest strength and weakness. It’s hard to empathise with Henry since he’s mute and the lion’s share of his agency is violent. Plot points are usually explained when the character has been incapacitated or if they’re following another character around – much as is the case in an FPS – otherwise most of the fun comes from imagining which parts of the film would play out on rails and which would gift the player some decent mechanics.
There are two aspects that elevate Hardcore Henry above its ultra violent content. The first is a reference – and a rather subtle one at that – that trying on different avatars in games this film resembles provides not just escape, but the opportunity for players to examine different aspects of themselves.
The second is one of the most prolonged and brutal fights of recent memory in film, which, because it all takes place from a first person POV, may just jar a couple of FPS fans into some deeper thought about their preferred form of entertainment. Replace those pixels with flesh and blood and the deal we strike with shooters – that producing a pile of corpses is essential to our engagement but this activity shouldn’t impede our enjoyment – starts to look downright psychotic.
The only problem here is that Hardcore Henry’s pacing is so high octane and its violence so gleeful – the aforementioned ‘boss fight’ is scored by Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ – that it’s doubtful the filmmakers are aware they may have just made these points.
Here’s another movie critic cliche; ‘this film is like a rollercoaster’. Once again, in the case of Hardcore Henry, this description fits better than it does for most other films. There will be some who pay their money, will be sickened and disturbed by what follows, and leave vowing never to repeat the experience. And there are those who’ll buy a ticket, enjoy what washes over them, and won’t be abe to wait to get back on the ride again.
Verdict: You’ll either love it or hate it and you probably know which camp you already fall into 5/10