'Hardcore Henry' Is Not The Video Game Movie You Wanted: Watch 'Scott Pilgrim' or 'Edge of Tomorrow' Instead
Hardcore Henry, on paper, isn’t a movie I’d be particularly interested in – the only “hardcore” action movies I want to see are the ones directed by Gareth Evans – but at least Henry does have one interesting feature. The movie, written and directed by Russian-American filmmaker Ilya Naishuller, is shot entirely from a first-person perspective, like a video game. Also like a video game, the film’s lead character is a complete blank slate – he is a faceless and voiceless vessel for the audience to experience the action through – a camera with hands to hold a gun.
If for no other reason, I was at least interested in Hardcore Henry to scope out a filmmaking innovation that doesn’t involve a team of computer graphics artists. Plus the marketers behind Hardcore Henry had no qualm with selling the movie based off of its gimmick – an approach fully justified, as you will soon learn – so, I was okay with walking into the theater completely uninterested in anything else besides the movie’s “singular” use of first-person perspective.
I’ve been interested to see how, in the past few years, video games have grown under the influence of cinema. The in-game narratives found in modern video games have grown increasingly sophisticated, just as the performances given by voice actors have grown in dramatic force thanks to motion-capture technology. Last year, in these very webpages, I covered the release of a new PlayStation 4 game titled Until Dawn, which is unlike any video game I’ve ever played. It’s the closest I’ve seen any game get to the cinematic form, the predominant art of the 20th Century,
The opposite – video games exerting influence over the movies – is less true, although it can be seen in flashes. The level of hyper-violence found in most movies, that are not romantic comedies, could be attributed to a rise in the popularity of video games across all major markets. More and more, big budget films depend on computer generated visual effects, much as the world’s video game developers design with lines of code. The way video games have most influenced our current era of film, however, is merely by being an inseparable part of growing up in the first world. Everyone from the age of Nintendo and onward plays video games, at least when they were young. The creators making films today – and to a lesser extent, the studios funding them – all grew with video games as a major force in their lives. In that way, video game design philosophy has subtly seeped into movie-making.
Which partially explains Hardcore Henry, a movie that takes the least translatable or just down-right detestable aspects of modern video games – a hollow, colorless protagonist, a barebones plot just sturdy enough to support waves and waves of killing, and most frustratingly, deplorable depictions of women – and mixes them together into a sour-tasting concoction that doesn’t feel like a well-made movie or a fun video game. Strip away the picture’s first-person gimmick and you’re left with a film that’s completely devoid of character, plot, coherent action, or just about anything else that might make you want to go see this by-the-numbers action flick.
The screenwriters behind Hardcore Henry didn’t seem to care about the movie’s plot all that much, so I don’t know why I would bother recapping it for you. But for the sake of writing a complete review, here goes – after a flashback where Henry’s father (Tim Roth) delivers one line of dialogue (about half of his lines in the entire picture), the film cuts to a pristine laboratory as Henry (we, the audience) awakens on an operating table, with a beautiful blonde doctor named Estelle (Haley Bennett) hovering over him. He’s missing an arm, a leg and perhaps more, so he clearly got messed up by something. Estelle helps install some bionic limbs onto Henry’s body, but before she can install his speech module, a group of mercenaries led by the film’s super villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) break into the lab, set on capturing Henry. What a completely inept way to explain why the film’s lead character doesn’t speak a word of dialogue, but it’s perfectly fitting with the rest of the movie.
Estelle and Henry escape, landing somewhere in Moscow. As the mercenaries continue to pursue him, he is separated from Estelle, at which point Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) rescues him. Jimmy and Henry spend the rest of Acts One and Two on the run from Akan – who, for some reason, is telekinetic – until the film reaches its messy and inexplicable conclusion. What happens in between all that is more or less completely forgettable.
In Hardcore Henry, the characters have about the same interest and vitality as the non-playable characters found in most video games. The Wrap recently ran an illuminating piece on the film titled “Is Hardcore Henry Sexist?” which I decided to click, even after rolling my eyes at the headline. The article does nothing more but list the names of every female character in the film, and man is is telling. Here’s just a sampling…
Olga the Dominatrix, Katya the Dominatrix, Concerned girl #2, Escalator face plant girl, Ella the Whore, Angry Prostitute, Girl in Brothel, numbers 1-29, Rape Victim.
I could be wrong, but writing a movie in which only one female character has a name that does not reflect the role’s sexuality, or status as a victim, might definitely be sexist. The Wrap may have packaged their argument as clickbait, but the point is well taken.
If you had hoped that such illustrious screenwriters (writer/director Naishuller had assistance from Will Stewart) would be capable of including any character worth remembering in their screenplay, I’ve got a big ol’ bag full of disappointment to hand your way. The film’s villain, mentioned above, is laughably bad. On the scale of menacing action movie villains, Akan ranks somewhere in the range of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and Jesse Eisenberg’s recent turn as millennial Lex Luthor (a movie so bad, I had to write about it twice). Akan comes off about as threatening as Tommy Wiseau does in The Room, and he turns in a performance about as unintentionally funny as Wiseau’s, as well. Of course Henry is completely vapid, but that’s sort of by design. The character of Estelle doesn’t get much time to do anything, and even Sharlto Copley‘s Jimmy does nothing to elevate Hardcore Henry beyond the level of pure gimmick.
Now, about that gimmick. I walked in expecting to at least dig the film’s novel use of first-person camerawork (novel, at least, in that the film never switches out of that perspective), but I walked out pretty iffy on the whole concept. It’s a nifty trick, but I didn’t see anything in Hardcore Henry that warrants abandoning a history’s worth of cinematic staging in favor of this new approach. Perhaps, if the film were to use first-person sparingly, the effect would have been more profound.
Hardcore Henry doesn’t contain one second of footage captured using this innovative rig – basically, a GoPro Hero 3 camera mounted to a rack and worn over an operator’s face like a mask – that adds to the story or characters…it’s all gimmick. Even the fight scenes fall flat, which would seemingly be the most obvious area to see improvement from first-person point of view. The fight scenes are some of the hardest in the movie to watch. The camera shakes frenetically, chaotically and meaninglessly, making the action difficult to track. The Parkour-style chase scenes work, but only because the camera operator doesn’t have to move their head as rapidly – this is another case where the first-person approach might have worked in segments, instead of the entire run time.
Is first-person filmmaking the wave of the future? Hardcore Henry certainly argues against that theory, but as equipment improves and techniques develop, we might see this type of movie grow into something more substantive. When sound entered the motion picture industry, no one thought the fad would catch on, but here we are. Ninety years from now, someone might look at this review and decide I’m a fool for not immediately embracing the standardized practice of first-person cinematic photography. Maybe, but they probably wouldn’t disagree with the score I’m about to give Hardcore Henry.