Hardcore Henry is a like a very violent yet well animated cartoon, coupled with the flow of a videogame. If you don’t like the sound of either of these, you might not like this film, but I’d still say you should consider seeing it, if only to see something innovative. I went in with very few expectations, having seen a review online and deciding it could make for interesting conversation fodder, or at least a fun Friday night experience. Though it’s not perfect, the filmmakers risked the project (and probably their careers) on the POV angle, and it was refreshing to see brave directorial decisions pan out on screen. With the emergence of Virtual Reality technology, I feel like this could be the beginnings of the future of film. Our tickets came with a little comic book about the origins of the primary antagonist with our tickets which is a nice touch worth mentioning.
Hardcore Henry is a feat of McGyver filmmaking using accessible new technology. From what I’ve gleaned from interviews with the filmmakers, it was filmed using a gaggle of Go Pros, each mounted on 3D-printed headgear which affixed the cameras to the stunt man’s head. Instead of being on his forehead, as Go Pros are intended to be worn, these were nestled under his nose, to make the perspective more natural. Ilya Naishuller, the director, reminisces in an interview that the men who played Henry were not only tasked with performing stunts, but acting as camera man and cinematographer. They’d have to “jump out of a burning window, but remember to look up and frame the rest of the shot.”
It’s amazing how much this feels like a videogame, their tropes played upon without irony. The Jimmy character acts as the tutorial-giving helper friend along the lines of Navi from the Legend of Zelda series, if instead of insufferable, she were amusing. Jimmy gives Henry a cell phone which he uses to give him directions, much like the objective point on the map of any RPG. Instead of feeling forced, it actually works in the context of the film, but a healthy does of suspension of disbelief doesn’t hurt. The scenes are more like levels than they are settings, as each provides only a backdrop for the action, and visual interest. In some cases, the method of combat changes based on the level. The film relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge of video games, and it feels like watching someone play a video game. Given the popularity of the “lets play” channels on YouTube, I suspect most people are familiar with the concept.
The main villain, Akan, exists only to give Henry an objective, but is barely a character in his own right. He’s so outlandishly evil, a super villain with unexplained super powers, red eyes, and white hair, that I reveled in his presence, though it was impossible to take seriously. His rediculous actions put the plot into motion, but Henry’s motivation is simply to save his wife from a generic evil man. He’s like a typical JRPG villain; within that context, I find him delightful, but without it, his character is otherwise poorly written.
This does work as a film, despite its heavy use of video game discourse, because of the Jimmy character, played by Sharlto Copley. The role was apparently written with him in mind, to give him a playground in which to flex his character acting muscles. I cannot go into more detail without ruining an integral part of the film, but Copley is in almost every scene, giving much needed levity and exposition. Jimmy is the real protagonist of the film since Henry is a surrogate for the audience. He’s the only character with an arc, and the only who is plausibly human in his characterization, despite his sci-fi origins. Though I saw the film from Henry’s shoes, I became more attached to Jimmy.
This is a very violent film, but it was unrealistic to the point of being cartoon-y, not disturbing. This is much more palatable than a horror movie with grotesque bodies and torture porn, especially since the fast pace left no time to linger on any gruesome details. The beginning sequence was the worst, but I understand the role it played in setting the tone for the film, warning the audience in a way. If you can get past that, the rest of the film will be a downhill slide.
Hardcore Parkour could be the alternative title, because many of the thrilling parts of this film are the free running sequences. It’s enough to make you want to exercise. If you don’t have years to dedicate to honing your acrobatic skills, watching this is the next best thing. It reminds me of the 2008 game, Mirror’s Edge, in which you play as one of a network of runners who transmit messages, circumventing government surveillance. Henry falls from the sky, jumps over fences, runs over bridges, and all of these scenes are crudely beautiful.
Overall, the film seems thoughtfully created; it could have failed in innumerable ways, giving audiences motion sickness, or by using stiff acting and boring sets, but it deftly sidesteps all of these. One can tell that those involved with this project were passionate and gleeful. I look forward to seeing what else Naishuller can do, and I hope he expands the Hardcore Henry universe. The worst part of the film was sitting in front of a murder of bros who were a little too excited to see their call of duty dreams come true, kicking my chair as their anxious voices quivered in manic anticipation. I’m not going to give this a number rating, because it’s impossible to compare this to the other films I’ve reviewed.
I will leave you with this piece of advice: if you’re interested at all in this film GO SEE IT IN THEATERS. The visuals won’t be nearly as impressive on the small screen. This is a breath of fresh air before a sticky summer full of squeals, derivative blockbusters, superheros, and remakes.