“Hardcore Henry” is a dazzlingly ambitious technical exercise, the most wholly-realized “first person” point-of-view action picture ever made.
Writer-director Ilya Naishuller and a trio of cinematographers, strapped up with tiny GoPro cameras, have turned a first-person-shooter (FPS) video game into a big screen experience.
We see what our “hero” sees, shoot, stab and inject what our “Henry” injects, run where Henry runs, flee a tank Henry flees, motorcycle where Henry motorcycles, leap from heights Henry plunges from, hurdle off buildings (parkour style) and plunge into brothels Henry visits — in “real time” adding to the “you’re really there” vibe.
It’s quite a gimmick, requiring painstaking fight choreography, masking your long-take edits (done quite well, at times) with a screenplay that is more engineering than writing, with virtually nothing that you’d call “acting” that makes the viewer feel that most human of emotions — empathy.
Bullets and grenades make heads explode and bodies vaporize in Henry’s eyes as we look down the gun-barrel or follow where he hurls the grenade that will wreak all this havoc. Cool. We tumble to the ground with every blow, explosion or shot that impacts Henry’s head or Henry’s person.
It’s virtual reality (Occulus Rift) without a headset, and “Hardcore Henry” makes you wish you were wearing one.
The scanty story is this. Slo-mo third-person perspective shots show a body taking a deadly beating — knives and bullets penetrating the skin, a brick bashing a man’s head. Then, this stitched-up chap missing a leg and an arm wakes up. A gorgeous scientist (Haley Bennett) whispers to him of their past, their love, tries to comfort “Henry.” It’s a major motivation for all that follows, but the acting doesn’t put this relationship over.
A sadistic albino (Danila Kozlovsky) and his minions show up, terrorizing and killing others in the lab. Henry, whatever he was, has become a super-soldier experiment — super-powered artificial limbs, the works. The scientist, Estelle, flees and takes Henry with her. So begins the chase.
Which is all this movie is, a mad sprint through a lawless, bloody, mercenary-ruled corner of Russia — cityscapes, ruined apartment blocks, anarchic highways and idyllic, explosions-riddled countryside.
Sharlto Copley puts on an acting tour-de-force, or tour-de-guises, playing Jimmy, this helpful fellow who keeps tracking Henry down, giving him new instructions, helping him see who he is and what he must do to stay functional (“alive” doesn’t work) for a few minutes longer. And as in a video game, Henry must shoot and fight his way through mobs of minions and bystanders to achieve each goal, or level of the game/movie plot.
Copley’s Jimmy can be a drunken hobo, an aged hippy, a coke-snorting hedonist or a WWII vintage British commando, “pip pip, spot-of-bother, cheerio” and “Don’t spare the horses.” All that. He has a lot of fun with the part and provides spots of humor to lighten the bloodbath we’re immersed in.
The ticking clock nature of the chase, racing against your own doom, is an old movie trope. It worked much better in “Crank,” for instance, another movie with mayhem, gore and humor hurling breathlessly by us as a hero races against his impending death. The reason it worked? We meet the character. We care about him, and his lady love. Not here.
The FPS POV visual impact of “Hardcore Henry” will be different for some, but I felt a vertigo-induced headache coming on, and a little queasy at times — not just at the ultra-violence. It’s so disorienting, the cameras so shaky, that the visuals never let the eye grab hold of perspective, get our feet under us. Shaky camera first person POV movies have never bothered me before, and I’ve seen all of them. “Hardcore Henry” is jarring and so a-cinematic that I couldn’t enjoy much of the technical razzle-dazzle this ticking-clock monstrosity was hurling at me.
Still, feeling nauseous is still “feeling” something. In a soulless first person shooter video game movie like this, where death is so common and only one death seems to have any feeling to it, feeling anything at all is a feat in itself.
MPAA Rating:R for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use
Running time: 1:30