Movie Review – Hardcore Henry: Crazy. Stupid. Awesome.
Hardcore Henry is the brain-child of Ilya Naishuller, the front man for a Russian rock band named Biting Elbows. The band gained a cult following for their music videos, which were shot in the first person on a GoPro 3 camera rigged up to be worn like a mask, and which were full of stylish action and violence. I remember seeing the video three years ago and being really impressed with both the concept and the execution. Those videos are a rush! (In fact, if by the end of this review, you’re unsure if Hardcore Henry is the movie for you, watch this music video: if you like it, you’re going to love Hardcore Henry.) Naishuller has up-scaled his bite sized video into a full fledged action movie, and I’m no less impressed with the results. Hardcore Henry is not a good movie…its an awesome movie.
Hardcore Henry (2016)
Henry awakens in a lab, as a beautiful blond scientist explains his situation: he was a man, her husband, but he got FUBAR-ed by unknown enemies, and now he’s a cyborg. She attaches his missing limbs and takes him to a control room to activate his voice synthesizer, but the lab is attacked by Akan, a crime lord with telekinetic powers who wants the cyborg technology to create an army of super soldiers. Henry and his wife escape, but Akan’s men are waiting for them outside and kick Henry’s butt and steal his wife. A mysterious stranger named Jimmy saves Henry and gives him instructions on how to get to Akan and save his lady.
Along for the Ride
Hardcore Henry is shot almost exclusively in the first person using a head-mounted camera that allows the actor/stuntman/cameraman’s limbs to appear in the frame. The approach is much like a video-game shooter, where we see Henry punch, shoot, kick and stab from his perspective. I anticipated that this approach would cause a lot of vertigo (hell, falling off a ledge in video games makes me nauseous!) but it is fairly seamless. The opening action is mostly running and parkour stunts, which are the most disorienting shots of the film. Sometimes a cool stunt gets your blood pumping, but the head-bobbing and shaky landings can become jarring. The later sequences are mostly choreographed fights with fists or guns, and those are thrilling and more natural. It feels like the film tries very hard to establish that you are seeing out of Henry’s eyes in the first half hour, which ends up being less effective than the climax of the film, where they edit a lot of the shakiness out in favor of making a beautiful scene. When that happens, you get some incredible sequences.
The Sound of One Fist Punching
The sound work in HH is pretty much the same story as the cinematography. They really try to sink you into the immersion at the get go, which means you get extremely loud gunfire, breathing, and ambient noise very early on. The first major shooting scene was painfully loud, and I thought that if it continued, I was going to be in for a very uncomfortable viewing. As the film goes on, however, much of the sound is toned down to appropriate levels, becoming a background punctuation instead of a constant roar. The boom of a shotgun blast or the ringing in the ears caused by a grenade exploding becomes integral to the experience and ends up adding to the effectiveness of the experience.
What is consistently excellent is the soundtrack. The music really feels organic to the piece, from drippy psychedelic rock out in the countryside, to driving electronic music in the city, to wailing punk rock during a pivotal fight scene. The final confrontation between Akan’s soldiers and Henry is choreographed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and it is a slam dunk, A+ fit for the action you’re watching. It’s probably not shocking that a director who cut his teeth on music videos would nail the music, but Ilya Naishuller does nail it, right to the bloody wall.
In what is a recurring theme, the plot of the story is weakest at the beginning. You get only the barest indication of a narrative and are dropped right into the action. I wondered if this movie was going to be just a flimsy excuse for (incredible) action without any pretense at telling a story. Compounding this, you get a lot of odd elements and unaccountable sci-fi thrown at you early. It is very easy to write the film off as confused and muddled…but once again the film hits its stride about 45 minutes in and you finally can see the pattern in the randomness. It’s hard to explain without spoiling the plot, but if you’re frustrated and confused early on, realize that its part of the immersion: Henry doesn’t know what the hell is going on when he wakes up, and he has to make sense of the events just like we do. It passes. Eventually all the weirdness will make sense, though it won’t stop being weird.
The acting in HH is high and low. Akan (Danila Koslovsky) is a scenery-chewing ham with a perverted mouth who often feels overblown and overacted (but does have a few nice scenes.) Henry’s wife (Haley Bennett) is a bit of a non-entity till the final act. Tim Roth, who is generally amazing, has a throw-away cameo that actually makes very little sense despite it supposedly being pivotal. Henry himself is a cypher till the end, a mute and malleable marionette of misanthropy…who actually does feel like a character by the finish of the piece. Everything is just so-so until you get to Henry’s informant, Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley. Holy jumped up Jesus on a biscuit, Copley is a goddamn genius in this film.
Copley, for reasons that take this film from passable action-porn into sublime sci-fi mind-fuckery and can’t be discussed in length, plays a virtual cast of characters. Henry’s informant is always named Jimmy, and always played by Copley, but is a completely different persona each time. We actually see him get brutally murdered nearly every scene he is in. There is a fourth wall shattering mystery about his character, and Copley plays that facet to the hilt. He’s “Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove” levels of fun. He play so many corny stereotypes with reckless abandon (including a show-tune crooner that should sink like a rock but he totally sells to the audience,) you constantly look for where he’s going to pop up next. He’s one of those actors you never knew you liked because he plays screwball characters all the time, but he’s a real talent you shouldn’t miss.
Now for the negatives: Hardcore Henry is full of gratuitous violence and nudity. The opening credits is a highlight reel of stylized murder that shows extremely explicit shots of stabbing, shooting and blunt trauma. It walks a weird line of being both artistic and puerile. The movie is an ode to violence, and often the deaths in HH are either funny, exciting, or artistically crafted…but sometimes they’re just juvenile blood letting. There’s a stop off at a strip club that is purely fan service, which feels odd since the film does a good job of not throwing in crass nudity anywhere else. Akan’s dialogue can also devolve into bar-room taunts and filthy innuendo. The nature of a mute protagonist makes Henry’s interaction with the world a bit child-like at times with silly pantomime and simplistic yes or no dialogues. I know some people are going to come away from this film with just the impression that this is a childish thrill/kill flick…but that’s the genre this film is both emulating and mocking.
Hardcore Henry wears its video game inspiration on its sleeves. This film is a love letter to the outrageous shooters from the 1990’s like Doom, Serious Sam, and especially Duke Nukem. The film goes out of its way to include elements from the genre such as copious stashes of weapons, ubiquitous grenades, and even gonzo elements like health-packs and a freaking samurai sword sequence (which Henry uses to fight a tank!) I was a little surprised that Ed Boon’s head didn’t pop up in the lower corner and shout “Toasty!” when Henry fought a dude with a flamethrower! If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, some of this film is going to seem completely out of place, but its all an offshoot of a particular subset of movies and games that flaunted casual violence and turned it into its own art form.
At the end of the day, Hardcore Henry may be a film for a limited audience who are both aware of its predecessors and who accept the tropes that made those games so much fun. It has a steep learning curve that may throw many people for a loop since it takes a good 30-40 minutes before all of the elements cohere. All I can say is that after that first half hour or so, I was totally on board. When Henry is simulating realism, it is just decent but mindless fun, but when he’s invested with the godlike murder powers of Doom Guy or Duke Nukem, the film elevates action sequences into a dance of carnage and mayhem that is some of the most fun I’ve seen in a while (frankly, between Deadpool and Hardcore Henry, this has been a hell of a spring for stylish and immature violence!) Hardcore Henry takes risks that almost no film would dare to and leaves it all out there on the battle field. It doesn’t even end with sequel bait, which is a shame because I would totally be down for another romp with Henry and his friends.