Whenever members of Saturday Night Live graduate to movies, and that movie is somewhat less than successful at maintaining laughs, a critic might often be heard to refrain “that might have worked better as a five-minute sketch, but…” The same might be said for Hardcore Henry, a film notable for being told entirely from the first-person point of view. A frantic, fuel-injected ADHD action spectacle that’s perhaps the closest a movie has come yet to capturing the visceral look and feeling of playing a video game. But like the old saying goes, a little goes a long way, but despite the relatively brief 90-minute running time, Hardcore Henry would have probably worked better as a five minute sketch.
Hardcore Henry is told entirely from the first person perspective of Henry, an amnesiac that wakes up in a lab tank being fitted with bionic parts by the kindly scientist Estelle (Haley Bennett), who tells Henry that she’s his wife. As she helps Henry adjust to his new parts, a villainous sort with telekinetic powers named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) breaks into the lab, forcing Henry to take Estelle and run. But when Estelle is captured by Akan, Henry launches a bloody swath of cross-country vengeance to find her and upset the plans of Akan and his evil empire, which includes a group of bionic zombified super-soldiers. As you can imagine, Hardcore Henry does not put a high premium on reality.
Indeed, the movie is designed with the idea of the audience living vicariously through a video game character is at the very heart of the film. For instance, Henry begins with a poor grasp of his own abilities, but he learns as he’s put through increasingly more rigorous tests. And he has to collect things as he goes: intelligence, new weapons, clothing, and, in one particular move that lacks any subtlety, an occasional power-up. Henry is incredibly durable, but he doesn’t have extra lives. That honor goes to “Jimmy” played by Sharlto Copley, who turns up repeatedly as Henry’s ally before being dispatched in one of several horrible ways.
Yes, “subtlety” is not a word you’ll hear used too often in Hardcore Henry. Obviously Estelle is only worth saving because she works wearing a lab coat over a short skirt and high heels, you know like most female scientists. You know Akan is a bad guy because he’s an albino and albinism equals evil, and perhaps super-powers. Of course, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re getting into. The TV ads have been selling this as a first person Crank, and the film’s opening credits sequences is an explicitly violent montage of scenes meant as an homage to James Bond. Even the film’s target demographic, young men obsessed with gaming, were squirming at the sight of a knife stabbed through and through some henchman’s neck in explicit, close-up detail.
And it should go without saying that if you’re one of those poor people that can’t get in to a Prius without first a trip to the pharmacy, this may not be the ideal movie for you. Still, it’s almost impressive the way that director Ilya Naishuller doesn’t use the film’s central conceit as a way to cut corners or use shaky cam and jumps cuts to excess. Henry, and Henry, always has a good grasp of time and location which makes the movie easy to follow enough. If Hardcore Henry becomes known for nothing else, it will be for the technical mastery of pulling off its main selling point, an amazing feat of technological and logistical control, especially for a first time feature filmmaker.
But the propulsive energy that the film opens with can’t possibly be maintained over the long-term. By the time the movie gets to the climax, and after seven or eight other vicious fights that includes flamethrowers, paratroopers, and a battle across a motorcade, you feel about as robotic as Henry, a literally killing machine that’s programmed to do one thing, and do it well: violence. Is Henry doing all this for the love of a woman he, admittedly, barely knows thanks to his amnesia, or is he just following a programmed doctrine to create as much mayhem as inhumanly possible?
If you have trouble following Henry’s motivation though, at least he has some. Bennett’s only direction is to go back and forth between looking at the camera with concern, and looking at with love. Still, Bennett does benefit from being the only female character in this film that isn’t a prostitute or some kind of adolescent male fantasy figure wearing form fitting clothes, being good with a gun and sexually promiscuous with both genders. Of course, Henry at one point ends up in a brothel where all the women there where the same blonde wig with a Bob haircut. Nothing says “women are sex objects” like having a scene were dozens of them are half-naked and made to look alike.
By comparison, you have Copley, who seems to be having a blast as the various murdered Jimmys, which allows him to do more with one character than all the female actors in this movie combined. Copley’s shtick is fun for a while, but as we get introduced to each new Jimmy without explanation, it wears thin, and by the time there is an explanation, it’s about as confusing and uninspired as Copley’s bizarre mid-movie musical dance sequence to a Cole Porter standard. As for Kozlovsky as Akan, if you’ve seen one albino bad guy with super-powers, you’ve seen them all. The movie seems unconcerned with making Akan too powerful for Henry practically defeat because he is, obviously, the final boss, which means that Henry will only be able to lay a hand on him once all the other bad guys are dead.
It’s understandable that a movie like Hardcore Henry is more focused on the technical mastery of its main selling point than breaking new ground in the script, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Though with a lack of focus on the latter, the former is only memorable while the viewer sits in front of the screen. Walking out of the theater, you shrug and say, “Well that happened,” and you go about your day. Like “found footage” there’s room in this idea to do something memorable, but Hardcore Henry with its first person shooter as movie aesthetic is as faceless its main hero, and barely distinguishable from any number of action movies.