Overview: A cybernetic soldier named Henry wakes up with no memories, and a psychotic, telekinetic warlord Akan fast on his trail. With the help of the eccentric Jimmy, Henry carves a bloody path to discover his origins and save a wife he can no longer remember. STX Entertainment; 2015; Rated R; 96 minutes.
Greatest Video Game You’ve Never Played: Somewhere out there is a review for this film, one lovingly composed by a college freshman, which only consists of one sentence because one sentence is all it really needs to make its point. That sentence reads: “Hardcore Henry is fuckin’ awesome!” This is the modern midnight movie, aimed at crowds who clutched joysticks and controllers in their hands since near-infancy, and those bleary eyed and slap-happy from too many carbonated, caffeinated beverages…and more illicit vices. This film, shot almost entirely on a GoPro, is a first person audience experience unlike anything that’s been attempted before. Hardcore Henry takes the post-Matrix era criticism leveraged at films for looking and feeling like video games and turns that charge into its greatest asset.
First-time Director Ilya Naishuller knows his audience and he knows exactly what he wants this film to be. Naishuller doesn’t simply direct this film, he full-body tackles it like Paul Verhoeven on a coke bender, delivering a visceral visual experience. Like playing a new video game and learning the controls for the first time, Hardcore Henry requires an adjustment period for the audience. It is initially disorienting watching a film in first person and feeling frustrated that the camera isn’t positioning itself the way it normally would in a traditional film. Twenty minutes in the film reaches a kind of fluidity and appreciated beauty that declares we’ve finally finished the tutorial and can move on to the good stuff. And the good stuff in Hardcore Henry is oh so good. The stunt work is pure artistry and a reminder that the Academy should recognize stunt performers, because there’s nothing safe about the film’s ability to place the viewer right in the front seat of the action. From parachuting, parkour, treacherous looking bridge chases, and a deadly looking motor sequence, Hardcore Henry never shies away from risk. And for action and video game aficionados, no amount of cinematic firefights or Halo battles could prepare them for this. Naishuller recognizes the importance of high-octane fan-service and delivers the standard action that viewers want to see, but goes a step beyond that and delivers what we never could have expected as each new set piece impossibly tops the previous one. Naishuller’s background as a music video director comes into play when the action takes full advantage of the human body with a dancer’s commitment, set to a pretty fantastic soundtrack. Sure, this film is a gimmick (aren’t they all?) but the first person perspective is used with a purpose beyond its surface level merits. Bloody, crude, and potentially damaging to those prone to motion sickness, Hardcore Henry revels in its excess while pointing towards something more significant.
Puppet With Stapled in Strings: While it would have been easy for the Naishuller to phone in the narrative given the unique design of the film, Hardcore Henry delivers a story that is not only engaging but wonderfully weird and surprising in all the ways that create a lasting impression. A large part of this oddness comes from Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy. It’s been some time since we’ve seen Copley used to his fullest potential but here he finds his inner Peter Sellers as he performs multiple roles that speak to the splintered nature of modern identity and millennial declaration YOLO. Each of Copley’s characters, all named Jimmy, act as a guide to Henry, spiritually, scientifically, and sexually. This film finds its identity through a blend of cultural philosophies and scientific questions of morality motivated by violence and sex. We watch as Henry adapts and takes on these issues, and from our first-person seat we see these aspects in our own cultural identities. Yes, we’re watching a film with a cyborg battling a scenery-chewing villain (the show-stopping Danila Kozlovsky) who’d probably fit seamlessly in an anime, but we’re also watching something that questions our limits of control. Coupled with our audience-driven desire to be in control of this first-person perspective is the underlying theme that Henry is not in control, and copious amounts of gore and nudity are only a distraction that prevent him from achieving the control he thinks he has. Henry’s memories, the evidence of his humanity, mean very little because they are part of the past. Awoken in the present there is only a primal drive and potential to be controlled by his vices and the very technology and political establishments put in place to aid him. Henry, is us in the 21st century as we quickly move from thing to thing and take pieces in order to create something we can identify as ourselves. We think we’re in control and that our video games, sex drives, scientific advancements, and political establishments work for us in order to ultimately form us. But as Hardcore Henry explores, intentionally or not, we most certainly work for them and are formed by them.
Overall: Hardcore Henry is a kinetic and innovative cultural artifact that fully envelops our 21st century era and provides commentary on our attention spans like no other film has before, and yes, it’s fuckin’ awesome.