Hardcore Henry

Posted by Joel Copling on March 16, 2016

"Hardcore Henry" gives two distinct and annoying sensations. The first is simply a fun sentiment with which to begin a review that will certainly, given its rating in stars (or lack thereof), be a vicious one: Imagine a roller coaster with a great number of twists, turns, and drops, then relegate it to a demo reel, and you have the experience of watching a movie that wants to elicit tension from its potentially unique central gimmick. More relevant to the film at hand, however, is the sensation that director Ilya Naishuller's film closely matches the experience of watching someone else playing a first-person shooter video game (firmly rated M by the ESRB) for ninety minutes.

That experience, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. This critic, who has played his fair share of FPS games over the course of his life (and enjoyed quite a few of them), finds being an audience to such an experience nearly intolerable, so a film like this was, perhaps, inevitably going to disagree with him. Even opening oneself up to the possibility of something like this, which has never been accomplished on this scale in an action movie before, provides a bevy of reasons to dislike it. Indeed, the conceit of watching a film through the eyes of our protagonist (a term used loosely here) wears off after about thirty seconds.

It becomes clear upon the moment when that protagonist and the woman he is trying to protect enter a pod in which they much parachute out of a plane at great speed and from a great height. By any logical measure, Naishuller should be able to inspire a sense of vertigo here at the most basic level. It may not be genuine tension, per se, but some sort of reaction from one's viscera, even if it's an uncomfortable shudder from an acrophobic, would be nice. Unfortunately, there's no depth of vision here. The many, many non-stop sequences of gun-related action suffer from a similar problem: There is no excitement the 57th time an operative is grievously and mortally injured by a bullet or explosion, largely because Naishuller doesn't allow us to see it (an extended, embarrassing scene set inside a prostitution house, for instance, lit dingily and hazily).

The plot is an unreadable clothesline. We enter the first-person point-of-view of Henry (The end credits do not tell us whose arms and legs play his, but one can imagine it is one of the film's many cinematographers) as he wakes up in the company of Estelle (Haley Bennett). He has no memory, is mostly a cyborg, and apparently used to be or still is (?) Estelle's husband. An inexplicably telekinetic villain named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky in what can politely be described as an unfortunate performance) kidnaps her and leaves Henry for dead. An aide in the form of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) shows up to assist Henry in whatever manner and as many uniforms as possible, even after it is clear that the character has died (a running joke that is never funny with a solution that comes complete with a musical number, also not funny, for some reason).

That plot synopsis came after much consideration of a film that is made impossible to decipher by a screenplay (written by Naishuller, with Will Stewart offering "additional writing" that probably never existed) that fails even to follow a basically coherent structure. The stretches, often ten minutes or longer, of Henry shooting guns does, of course, take on the video-game style of its forebears--an occasionally direct line down the gun's sights--while explosive weapons are held ostentatiously in close-up before being thrown. It's a gimmick and that's all it is--intriguing on paper but obnoxious in execution. Indeed, "Hardcore Henry" offers a climactic showdown and cliffhanger that introduces two new elements into the mix--thematic odiousness and direct audience insult.

Film Information

Sharlto Copley (Jimmy), Danila Kozlovsky (Akan), Haley Bennett (Estelle), Tim Roth (Henry's Father).

Directed and written by Ilya Naishuller.

Rated R (non-stop bloody brutal violence/mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity, drug use).

90 minutes.

Released in select cities on April 8, 2016.