Director – Ilya Naishuller
Writer – Ilya Naishuller
Starring – Sharlto Copey, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennet, Tim Roth
For years people have been crying out for a decent video-game movie, that film that would truly capture the essence of gaming and translate that seamlessly to the cinema screen. Finally, that film has regaled us with it’s glorious presence, yet ironically it isn’t based on any pre-existing video game franchise at all. Rather, what we get is merely an action film that looks and feels exactly like a FPS (First-Person Shooter to those of you who have better things to do than play video-games in your twenties.) An adrenaline fueled joyride from start to finish, Ilya Naishuller may just have revolutionised the action genre with his first-person triumph, Hardcore Henry.
Waking up in a tank of water inside a laboratory on an airship, Henry recalls a gang of bullies from his childhood. A scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennet), greets Henry and says she is his wife, and that he has been revived from an accident that left him amnesiac and mute. After replacing a missing arm and leg with hi-tech cybernetic prostheses, a group of mercenaries led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) raid the ship, claiming all of Estelle’s research is his corporate property. Eventually, Henry fights his way out and runs into the mysterious Jimmy (Sharlto Copey), who leads him down a violent rabbit hole into insanity.
Quite obviously, what stands out instantaneously from Hardcore Henry is the fantastic use of the first-person perspective, achieved by strapping a go-pro to the lead actor’s head. It’s a unique idea, as it allows the benefits of a first-person view without the annoyances that come from the ‘found footage’ genre; I.E, jittery and shaky camerawork. In this instance the camera is fully stabilised, meaning while we get the twists and turns that accompany first-person in terms of visuals, we don’t get the sickening jitters that come with a shoulder-cam. It means we’re put right in Henry’s shoes, enjoying every crunching punch and every crippling gunshot with him, but we never feel like we’re on a particularly unstable plane, feeling cripplingly naesous, Ala Cloverfield.
One could easily state that Hardcore Henry is to action films what Maniac (2013) was to the slasher genre. It is, for better or worse, depending on your opinion, at least revolutionary, and deserves acclaim for trying something new. Thankfully, it works a treat, and once one gets over the initial bemusement of the format, you find that it places you into the action in a way traditional cinematography never could. Every punch is felt, every fall as well. It is, as alluded to earlier, like watching a live-action video game. Right down to the insane plotline involving telekinetic billionaire terrorists and cybernetically enhanced super soldiers.
And the narrative is insane, and potentially off-putting for the more pretentious among you. Personally, I loved it. It was relatively simple, yet had enough twists and turns to keep you engaged, and it just seemed to be perfectly enigmatic. Sure, it’s certainly threadbare and takes some suspension of disbelief at times, but no more than any other film within the traditionally over-the-top action genre.
The action itself is absolutely incredible; perfectly timed, wonderfully executed and magnificently choreographed. I can tell you, having directed several music videos, that pulling off these elaborate fight sequences must have been a gruelling and thankless task, and kudos to Naishuller for bringing it all together beautifully. It’s ultra-violent, yet cartoony enough to never cross into disturbing, and hits the perfect comedic nails that the likes of Evil Dead 2 mastered years ago. It’s as tongue-in-cheek as you can get without crossing into full parody territory, and is legitimately hilarious in places. You will, without doubt, fist-pump the air at least twice.
The video-game aspect permeates it all, as you can probably tell, from the story to the visuals to the narrative flow itself. The film follows a clear pattern of expositional dialogue, action, more dialogue, action etc that matches your classic video game shooter template perfectly. It also falls into Todorov’s theory quite neatly; Henry the silent hero, Estelle the princess, Akan the villain and Jimmy the dispatcher (AKA, ‘The Gandalf Role’). It’s simple for an audience to follow, yet intelligent enough to stimulate, with Henry’s mute status allowing him to almost serve as an avatar for us, the audience.
The performances are also stellar, with Coper as always impressing highly. Since his breakout in District Nine, he’s become an extremely versatile and talented performer, a a personal favourite of mine. Here, he once again highlights this, performing Jimmy’s multiple personalities and avatars. Throughout this, he displays a wide array of varying mannerisms and accents, and again reiterates the idea that he is among of the finest thespians performing today in cinema.
The rest of the cast is solid, as well, though Henry never gets a performance so to speak. Due to injury and other factors, multiple people donned the go-pro and ‘played’ Henry, including Naishuller himself. So it’s a strange enigma, that the protagonist in a good movie gets precisely no dialogue and no performance to speak of, yet, it doesn’t hinder the film at all. It’s just another beautiful quirk in a vary unique movie.
The sound is always thumpin’ as well, a fun electro-rock soundtrack that, unsurprisingly by this point, would not feel remotely out of place in a video-game. It’s nothing particular special, but is merely another finely woven piece of textiles in the tapestry of the film.
Hardcore Henry marks a potential evolution of both the first-person film, a type of film arguably not tried often enough to it’s full potential, and the action genre itself. Naishuller has crafted the closest thing we’ll ever see to a video game on screen, and, while not perfect, it deserves a place in the annals of cinematic history for it’s sheer balls and insane genius. Copey is fantastic as per usual, and the whole experience is so bizarre and stand-out that any self-respecting cinephile should try it once. I have a feeling it will go down as a ‘love it or hate it’ kinda movie, but fortunately, I loved it, and can only hope you do as well.
Final Rating – 4.5/5