Back when I reviewed Turbo Kid, I lamented that it was one of those movies, a cult readymade without a desire to do much else but call back to the signifiers of the B-movies and video trash of yore. In that same review, however, I pointed out that Turbo Kid’s saving grace was its prevailing sense of earnestness. Hardcore Henry, a Russian-American sci-fi action film that set off a three-way bidding war at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, doesn’t bother with earnestness, or anything even resembling emotional depth. It is perfectly content with being a violent one-trick pony, dedicating itself to all things “hardcore” to the detriment of the cinematic or the entertaining. But damned if its adolescent fascination with naughty things and its complete refusal to stay in one place for more than five minutes doesn’t make for hypnotic viewing.
Let’s not mince words: Hardcore Henry is basically a gimmick movie, a clear example of a story built around an idea and not the other way around. The whole film is shot in first-person POV; our eponymous hero wakes up in a lab with no recollection of how he got there. The lab gets ambushed by baddies, his wife gets kidnapped by said baddies, and he goes on the run to figure out just what the hell is going on. The only parts of Henry we ever see are his totally kick-ass cybernetic limbs and his sick-nasty pearl-white running shoes. Now, this movie is many things: dumb as a bag of hammers, a rip-off of better, similarly-themed B-movies made in the last decade, bloody to the point of parody. But above all else, it is chiefly and nakedly a teen boy power fantasy. The first line of dialogue spoken in the film (by a slumming Tim Roth, no less) is “You fucking pussy.” And immediately, just ten seconds in, everything snaps into focus. This is a movie whose M.O. is to make you feel hardcore simply by watching it. Every decision taken during principal photography appears to reinforce the notion that, no, this is not a movie for pussies. It’s as if writer/director Ilya Naishuller saw Crank and thought “Yes, this is good, but what if it wasn’t funny or colourful and the camera stayed locked on Chev Chelios’ head?”
That’s part of the problem with the POV gimmick: direction and mise-en-scène go straight out the window. Blocking? Composition? Nope, not really. Hardcore Henry puts all of its eggs in its first-person basket, which while commendable as far as commitment to the bit goes, leads to diminishing returns visually over the course of the film. Though the novelty of a movie adopting perspective tricks from video games gets old fast, it does lead to a few moments of genuine formal interest. A couple of sequences recall the stereoscopic panning that Jean-Luc Godard used in Goodbye to Language, and some of Henry’s acrobatic feats involve shots from angles that remain mostly uncovered in most films. It also contains Sharlto Copley’s career performance so far, allowing him to get his Peter Sellers on. But these moments are few and far between, going from smear to smear, from one undecipherable action setpiece to the next. And it certainly doesn’t bode well for the film when you can start picking up exact moments that were lifted wholesale from other, better movies. Didn’t Crank have a bunch of subtitle-based jokes? Hey, this whole fifteen-minute sequence is basically Universal Soldier. Holy shit, they stole this whole sequence with Copley from Gamer, right down to the song he sings.
It’s perfectly okay to be derivative, especially around these parts, but what you absolutely cannot be is derivative and dull. A flurry of baddies doused in prop blood does not a great action sequence make. The sleaziness and bawdiness of this movie’s main points of reference were complemented by laser-precise craft, a sense of humour, or in the case of the two John Hyams Universal Soldier movies, a profound sense of darkness and foreboding. Rather than engage with its own ickiness, Hardcore Henry remains doggedly shallow and butt-ugly, slathered in the greys and browns of every AAA video game on the market that prominently features guns. To its credit, though, it’s very easy to get caught up in its preposterous rhythms, because in the tradition of great junk-food cinema, it’s dumb and brisk and always barrelling ahead, plot and characterization be damned. It’s less a movie and more a series of checkpoints peppered with visceral jolts involving guns, guts, and girls. And it truly is intriguing to see a movie from this POV, because it feels like it points towards the future in a way; had this movie been released five years from now, it’s hard to imagine it being anything else other that an Oculus Rift title. But even when so much is happening on screen, nothing sticks. Hardcore Henry must have a body count in the hundreds, but those bodies have cumulative weight of a pawn being flicked off a chess board. That you made your whole movie with a GoPro is cool; why is a whole other thing.
Harcore Henry is currently playing in wide release.
Directed by Ilya Naishuller; written by Ilya Naishuller; starring Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, and Tim Roth; 96 minutes.