As much as I love film, I also love video games. It seems that Russian director Ilya Naishuller shares my love, as his new film Hardcore Henry effortlessly couples the mediums through an action flick shot entirely in first person.
Hardcore Henry is a video game you cannot actually play. Instead, you can only watch. And while that’s a thing that a ton of people like to do (hell, look at the ever-expanding “Let’s Play” communities on YouTube), Hardcore Henry continuously left me wishing I were playing rather than just watching.
The film uses all the stuff you love from first-person shooter games (i.e. the mindless, fast-paced, over-the-top action and violence). Unfortunately, it leaves out all of the stuff you come to a film for, like interesting plotlines, themes, or characters worth caring about.
The plot of the film revolves around Henry, a recently deceased man who has been brought back to life and equipped with robotics by his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett). The two narrowly escape the clutches of Akan (the film’s sad excuse for an interesting villain, played by Danila Kozlovsky) for a moment, all before Estelle is kidnapped and Henry is left for dead.
Although Hardcore Henry is a regular-length film clocking in at 90 minutes, everything after the first 10 minutes literally plays out as if it’s four or five levels of an incredibly short video game (even so much as to include a boss sequence at the end).
Henry receives mission objectives from his new friend Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), with his end goal being to save his wife and kill the bad guy (it seriously has as much of a storyline as Super Mario Bros.). We see the Russian landscapes through Henry’s eyes as he elegantly moves between locations, dispatching hundreds of nameless enemies as he goes along.
The first-person perspective makes for some incredibly unique and fun action scenes, even if it can be tough at times to understand what is happening due to the frenetic camerawork. And while I enjoyed a lot of the action in this film — and it is basically non-stop — it eventually becomes harder and harder to care about what is even occurring on-screen.
Hardcore Henry is part Crank, part Duke Nukem, part Call of Duty, and part John Wick. But it’s not nearly as good or as fun as any of those properties.
There are incredible scenes here, no doubt, like the motorcycle scene at the midpoint or the finale that has Henry fighting dozens of goons to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The intro credits sequence even stands out as a highlight of the film (that’s not as damning of the rest of the film as it sounds; it really is such a visually appealing credits sequence).
Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy is a fun character, but he’s the only character worth caring about in any capacity. It’s also worth noting that the character only works due to the eccentric performance from Copley, which helps the character absolutely steal any scene he’s in.
For the most part, the action looks convincing through the first-person perspective, oftentimes leaving you thinking, “How the hell did they do that?” Still, the film drags, even with its short runtime, and it actually becomes tiring. The lazy twist near the end doesn’t help any, either.
Perhaps Hardcore Henry would be better left as a short film, or instead as a 25-minute collection of its best parts. As it is, though, Hardcore Henry is a middling but interesting first foray into what could possibly be the future of action films. I just hope there’s something more substantial to come from this style of film in the future. It’d also be fine if they just left the first-person shooting to video games, where it rightly belongs.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor