Absurdist and grim, “Hardcore Henry” brings the worst of 22 to the cinemas

Grant Pearsall
Staff Writer

There has been a groundswell of opinion in film criticism that movies are being informed by videogames. That is to say that the tropes and mechanics of the interactive medium are being bolted onto cinema with the unspoken consensus being that this is a negative thing. In his review of the 2014 action-stinker ‘John Wick,’ Chris Hicks wrote, “If ever there was a movie that feels like a videogame, this is it.” This line of thinking often seems uninformed and histrionic, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium– more cinematic games wear their filmic influences on their sleeve (See: Hideo Kojima’s oeuvre) while all other genre entries like “Super Hexagon” and “Peggle” have more in common with a Speak and Spell than the works of Ingmar Bergman. Yet here we have Ilya Naishuller’s debut film, “Hardcore Henry.” It is as if all these fears and criticisms have been distilled down into 96 repellent minutes, primed and ready to become Exhibit A in the case of why films are picking the worst that videogames have to offer.

Naishuller’s first foray into the world of filmmaking is unquestionably a thing of ingenuity. If you have seen the trailer, you have experienced the visual trick this product has to offer– shot entirely with a helmet or chest mounted GoPro camera, the film simulates the first-person perspective. The audience is meant to feel as if they themselves are the protagonists, seeing the world from his POV as he perpetrates a veritable storm of mayhem on this blood-drenched journey. The amount of planning and the skill required to created what amounts to a breathless, extended action sequence in this style is mind-boggling. That the cinematography is clear, perfectly choreographed and does not inspire wanton motion sickness is a marvelous parlor trick. If there is anything approximating artistry here and worthy of praise, it is well earned with a level of commitment to an audacious style of filmmaking that never backs off or cheats on its own premise. Unfortunately there is still everything else about the film for consideration.

“Hardcore Henry” could easily be rearranged on a spreadsheet as a list of modern-day first person-shooter tropes with all checkboxes ticked. Contrivance for a silent protagonist, check. Contrivance for said protagonist being superhuman, check. Evil, faceless corporation, check. Needlessly brutal, in-your-face violence, check. A turret sequence, check. Immature gallows humor, check. Boss fights, check. I hesitate including the final item, as it is such a pat criticism of the ‘films-are-becoming-videogames, egad!’ rhetoric, but when the film is segmented by a series of one-on-one fights, including a snow-white haired Russian Mafioso with glowing eyes and inexplicable telekinetic powers, it is hard to not let the three pointer from the half-court swish.

Then there is the narrative. “Hardcore Henry,” opens with the titular Henry (played by a series of stuntmen) being brought back to consciousness by his scientist-wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) to be handed a mission. We are in Russia (maybe), in the near future (possibly) and Henry has been saved from certain death by having been converted into a death-dealing cyborg (m’kay.) Meanwhile the previously mentioned anime-baddie Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) is planning on creating a similar army of cyborg monstrosities for taking over the world. What unfolds after is an extended“Call of Duty” cut scene meets Soviet Robokop, sans any smart socio-political commentary and stocked so completely full of exploding heads and absurdist turbo-gore that only a malcontent could love.

The actor Tim Roth appears in the film for less than 45 seconds of screen time, in which he calls someone a “p***y” twice. Sharlto Copley is in this mix too, having a good time playing a variety of roles as “Jimmy.” It is extremely telling that Copley is a fount of homophobic dialogue. Here art imitates life– modern Russian is seemingly an unfriendly place for the LGBT community, this blossoming into open violence in the past several years.

“That has got to be the gayest jacket I have ever seen,” Jimmy yells out the window of a bus at a baddie. That he is literally set on fire seconds later by a mini-boss is only a blessed coincidence.

Naishuller’s film will undoubtedly have its share of cheerleaders and apologists– a likely cross section of folks who stump hard for the legitimacy of video games as a pastime and prefer their fictional violence to be callow and without consequence. Luckily the silver lining is that GoPro cameras are affordable, and thoughtful projects will be incepted from this film’s style. Meanwhile games will continue to be games, films will be films and nary the two shall meet. Except when they do, constantly.

Grade: [C-]

Running time: 96 minutes
Rating: R
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