Hardcore Henry should be shown to every student in film school on day one. There may be no better example of why the steady cam is so important. The entire film is seen from the first person perspective. So you never see Henry, just the world through his eyes. Imagine watching an entire movie like Call of Duty or Doom. It’s an interesting gimmick that may have worked if the experience wasn’t so jarring or if the plot made sense at all. Of course Henry doesn’t talk or have any real physical contact beyond combat. That should suffice the pure action junkie, if the fumbling about of the camera didn’t result in vertigo. I respect the effort by the filmmakers, but felt like a trip to the chiropractor afterwards.
Henry wakes up in a lab with a beautiful Russian doctor (Hayley Bennett-Jones) installing a robotic arm and leg. Henry can’t speak and has no memory of his former self. The doctor tells him his vocal processor needs to be fixed. At this point we’ve deduced that Henry is a cyborg, an engineered super soldier. The doctor reveals that she is his wife. She slips a ring on his finger, and then all hell breaks loose. A minor army of black and red clad baddies attack the lab. They are led by Akan (Danila Kozlovskiy), a telekinetic albino who loves to throw people around with his power. Henry barely escapes, but his wife is kidnapped. As he runs around clueless on Russian streets with the battery in his chest failing, he encounters a strange ally – Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). No matter how many times Jimmy gets killed, he keeps popping back up with a new personality. Jimmy is leading Henry to a secret lab, where he can be repaired and find his lost love.
Hardcore Henry is the brainchild of writer/director Ilya Naishuller. He deserves credit for a remarkable technical exercise. The film flows like a video game, with a huge body count and scene after scene of mini-missions. Naishuller is also the primary camera man. Shooting most of the film as Henry. He’s always on the move, jumping around like a free runner while riddling bad guys with bullets. Again, this would have been interesting if the screen wasn’t so shaky. Every move that Henry makes is nauseatingly wobbly. Think of wearing a Go Pro helmet, then jumping around like a rabbit fighting people. A few minutes of this would be entertaining, but sitting through ninety-minutes is akin to a bad rollercoaster.
Sharlto Copley steals this film as Jimmy. I won’t divulge what Jimmy is all about, but he’s a great character. The different incarnations of Jimmy, along with his many graphic deaths, is the saving grace of Hardcore Henry. He’s like the narrator of carnage. Copley has made a career of playing odd characters in fringe movies. He’s got this mischievous grin the entire time. Copley’s humor and back story adds a centimeter of depth to a woefully thin plot.
Besides the erratic and annoying camera movements, key plot questions are left unanswered. I can’t figure out if this was done on purpose to segue into sequels, or if Ilya Naishuller didn’t think it was important to address. Who gives a toss about the story if all you care about is the gimmickry? Another sticking point is Akan’s powers. This villain is so powerful, yet he just doesn’t destroy Henry by crushing him into paste? Also, how does Akan have these powers? It’s never explained.
Hardcore Henry is a decidedly mixed bag. If you want to see something different, and can stomach the visuals, then it is interesting. If you care about plot, character development, and avoiding nausea, then this isn’t the film for you. Count me in the latter category.