Hardcore Henry (2016)
Hardcore Henry is an action movie told entirely through the eyes of its silent protagonist. Some critics and fans are calling it the future of movies. Director and co-writer Ilya Naishuller strapped a team of stuntmen with facial camera masks and filmed entirely on GoPro Hero 3 cameras taking in every punch, kick, and jump. It’s an ambitious filmmaking gamble that dares to be something different, but is it worth the effort?
Henry wakes up in a science lab. Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs him/us that she is Henry’s wife and is upgrading him with a bionic arm and leg. Unfortunately, his voice hasn’t been implemented yet. Akan (Danilla Kozlovsky), a menacing albino with telekinetic powers, breaks into the lab and kills everyone but not before abducting Estelle. Henry is battered and left for dead. His only assistance comes from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious and helpful man who tries to direct Henry toward his mission of saving Estelle and thwarting Akan.
The draw of this movie is its propulsive and immersive visual playground, putting the viewer in the mind of its title hero as he narrowly escapes scrapes, scales buildings of dizzying heights, and kills a whole lot of bad guys with brutal efficiency. Its POV experience makes the hardcore violence all the more immersive, though after a while I was wishing we could change things up (more on this below). I must applaud director Naishuller and his crew of limber stuntmen for the sheer creative ingenuity of their stunts and action. With a relatively small budget ($10 million, or roughly the budget spent on bagels on the last Transformers flick), the ambition behind this movie can be startling, and the development of some of its more bonkers action sequences can provide a sky-high jolt of adrenaline like few movies match. The action is also very violent, with heads being blown off, limbs being snapped, bodies bent in two, eyes gouged and used to rip heads in half (this one still confuses me from a mechanical front), and near relentless bloodshed that sometimes even requires our hero to wipe it from his face. For those hungry for near non-stop action shaped to be the equivalent of a living first-person shooter game, Hardcore Henry might do enough to strap in and deliver the goods.
I have a confession dear reader: I experienced a fierce bout of motion sickness from this movie unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a theater. I’m usually rather immune to shaky camera movements and found footage movies. I remember reading about people getting sick and throwing up during screenings of The Blair Witch Project not because of its content but simply from its handheld camerawork. I have never had an issue up until now. After 20 minutes of Henry, I had to sit much further back in my theater. The continuous whipping camerawork caused me a great wave of nausea. I even had to leave the theater for five minutes in the middle of the movie just to re-calibrate my brain. I would warn people about sitting too close to the screen but ideally this movie’s proper place is really your home television. You can choose to take my review with some degree of skepticism thanks to this admission, but no movie ever got to me and forced me out of the theater from motion sickness before. Henry now has that dubious honor.
The gimmick does start to lose its novelty and I wanted to break free from the claustrophobic first-person perspective as well as its paper-thin story. I started thinking there were as many restrictions to the first-person perspective as benefits. It really hampers the hand-to-hand combat choreography, which often just feels like flashes and blurs, herky-jerky editing that doesn’t immerse so much as obscure. This seems to be more of an issue for the first half than the second, which relies more heavily on small arms battles. Chase scenes aren’t added by bobbing up and down from the first-person perspective. You just aren’t able to focus on the object or person of pursuit. I also don’t understand why the entire movie relies upon a fish-eye lens either, which isn’t exactly a normal part of human vision. Its distorted images, subtle but accumulative, added to my overall motion sickness. However, the worst aspect of Hardcore Henry is easily its story or what amounts to its story. This is a movie that looks like a video game and feels like a video game, except somebody else is playing it. The very opening plays out like a video game introduction cut scene, establishing the damsel in distress and the chief villain. From there it’s a series of levels and checkpoints and tips from allies and weapon upgrades and boss battles and interchangeable bad guys. The various Jimmy incarnations pop along to guide you and dole out exposition as required, and there’s even an escort mission involving keeping the real Jimmy alive while his avatars fight off the onslaught of goons. There are several scenes of the villain randomly popping up to deliver exposition, usually on a screen that suddenly comes to life. The eventual plot twists should also be rather predictable. If there is ever a video game version of this movie it should simply be a straight port of the Henry’s plot and thrifty execution.
This chosen plot structure would be less irksome if the movie provided a story or characters to follow. There’s a reason the protagonist is a mute. He is not a person but an indestructible killing machine running on a cheat code. He lacks larger goals other than flee, kill, and save the girl. Estelle is a one-note damsel in distress, a pretty face that we don’t feel a sense of history with. The villain is as completely replaceable as our hero. He’s a telekinetic albino and your guess is as good as mine about anything else. He has no personality beyond one single mode of menacing. He’s a villain that is completely defined by his outer appearance and special abilities. Simply put, he is a super lame villain, which makes the final showdown between Akan and Henry a very limited payoff. I still don’t understand how exactly Henry was able to defeat Akan and his telekinetic powers. It’s like Henry just arbitrarily overcomes them for no discernible reason, as if Henry grabbed some kind of invisible power-up. There’s no really clear reason why just about anything happens for most of the movie. It’s a chase movie where Henry has to outrun or out-murder his faceless enemies while getting objectives from Jimmy, who is easily the movie’s lone entertaining character. For the first half, you keep watching new and different incarnations of Jimmy invariably find you as if drawn by some cosmic magnet. Copley is effortlessly amusing as he goes full tilt Peter Sellers, playing the different characters with comic absurdity and droll black humor (my favorite was World War I Jimmy). There’s a genuine musical number that had me giggling. After a string of nadir-redefining miscalculated performances, it’s nice to be able to say that Copley delivers a fun and entertaining performance for the right reasons. Of course he also has the most screen time by far, so that’s probably also a clear factor. This is a movie that has prioritized the immersive action experience, but after the novelty wore off I was left with listless characters and a poorly articulated story stretched thin from breathless, bloody action set piece to set piece. It was less a movie and more a 90-minute viral video.
Hardcore Henry is a kinetic, propulsive, adrenaline-fueled immersive experience that ultimately is a bit too immersive and narratively flimsy. This isn’t a movie. There aren’t any characters to care about and the story is really the thinnest of tissue to connect from one action sequence (or game level) to the next, stopping at points for free-flowing exposition, weapons upgrade, or a checkpoint. It’s less a fully functioning movie and more of a visual experience, and whether that experience will ultimately justify its gimmick will depend on your threshold for the first-person POV and its scarce story. Here’s what I don’t understand about people saying Hardcore Henry is the future of movies. It’s an immersive experience but movies are already a medium that we can get lost in and transported, no first-person perspective necessary for our empathy to kick in. The recent cinematic action highs, like Snowpiercer and The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road and Edge of Tomorrow, all delivered exuberant thrills without having to strictly see through their protagonist’s eyeballs. Action moviemaking is more than a you-are-there visceral immediacy; it’s about building new worlds and blowing them up in fantastic ways. I did not feel pushed to the margins of any of those aforementioned film titles. I was completely absorbed and marveled at their ability to entertain and build payoffs. The idea is that Hardcore Henry is all payoff but if you want to wax philosophical, it’s more like an action movie’s pornographic cousin, cutting out the “boring bits” like developing characters that we care about, establishing setups, creating organic complications, and wrapping it all together in the blanket of a story that provides greater audience satisfaction. Those movies are more than just a stuntman’s sizzle reel; they’re movies. Hardcore Henry is only an experience, and it was an experience I wanted to turn off.
Nate’s Grade: C+