Live your own action movie
By Jason Wiese
History has proven that film and video games are two mediums that do not mix very well. Not many can name a feature length adaptation of a popular game that left critics or audiences satisfied and very few games based on movies have reached the success level of their source material. I am purely a cinema enthusiast who does not frequently indulge in video games so someone like me would expect a film that feels like a video game to be a very jarring and alienating experience.
Hardcore Henry, an action thriller from first-time writer-director Ilya Naishuller, told entirely from a first-person perspective, is such a film. Did I feel alienated? Thoroughly. Did I still have a good time? Yes, quite a bit.
The story begins with “you” (since the title character is essentially the window through which the audience experiences what takes place and without any credited actor in the role, I will just refer to Henry as if he is “you”) waking up with no memory of your past or the ability to speak. Estelle (Haley Bennett), a scientist who apparently “built” you, fills you in on your name, your purpose and your marriage to her. Once your character is established, an inexplicably supernatural villain named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) with motivations for evildoing that are even more confusing, appears out of thin air to kidnap Estelle. After failing to rescue her and barely escaping, you are randomly saved by a man named Jimmy (South African actor Sharlto Copley, who, despite an accent that can be difficult to digest, is the real star of the show). Jimmy is already fully aware of all the trouble you are in and immediately offers his assistance, thus initiating the non-stop, tremulous, incomprehensible roller coaster of carnage that follows.
I approached Hardcore Henry intrigued by its concept, anticipating it to be an action film with cinematography in the vein of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s seamlessly shot Birdman. I soon came to realize that my preempted comparison is more wrong than it is simply weak. The film, shot almost entirely with the use of a GoPro camera, is essentially a video game that renders the need to push buttons on a controller unnecessary. You live (just barely) through an entire day that is condensed into 96 minutes, with cuts between scenes that are either blatantly obvious or attempt to remain hidden through the pixelated malfunctioning of your vision. Each scene serves one of two purposes: for Jimmy to provide exposition or to create the effect that you have reached a new action-packed “level” of the story.
Naishuller, whose only other directing credit is a music video for his Russian indie Band Biting Elbows, seems to have made this film for a target audience more specific than the 18–35 year-old male demographic. He aims, shoots and hits a bullseye right in the hearts of video game lovers everywhere, throwing gaming references and obvious tropes left and right (and sometimes vertically or upside down). Naishuller’s target audience will feel right at home throughout the entire ride.
From a cinematic perspective, Hardcore Henry is garbage. The story is ludicrous, the cinematography leaves your eyes dryer than dirt and the acting and dialogue is so over-the-top it would make Tommy Wiseau (writer, director and star of the famously reviled The Room) proud. However, that is also part of its charm. I also applaud Naishuller for creating multiple sequences left me in awe, wondering how they were achieved. It is far from a groundbreaking cinematic achievement, not counting its technical achievements, but it excels in turning its own weaknesses into strengths by never taking itself seriously. Ever.
Congratulations, Henry. You win.