When bloody, entirely first person POV shoot ‘em up (and slash ‘em up, flamethrower ‘em up, plier ‘em up, etc.) Hardcore Henry debuted on the festival circuit it was simply called Hardcore. Now unleashed on the masses, it’s a bit strange that the film’s title includes the name of a character that never talks, lacks a clear goal, and whom we never see, save for his cybernetic appendages that are used to do all sorts of nasty things to myriad adversaries.
Shot almost exclusively on a GoPro, the idea is that we are Henry, seeing everything that he sees. What we see is a lot of repetitive carnage lacking context. It’s like being stuck in a video game that won’t allow us to manipulate the action, and the technique is more deadening than exhilarating. Even devout players of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are likely to grow antsy without a controller in their hands.
The POV gimmick is all Hardcore Henry has, and that alone isn’t enough to usher in the PlayStation New Wave of cinema. Let’s hope.
Henry (whichever stunt/cameraman was wearing the GoPro helmet) wakes in a lab as robotic arms and legs are being screwed into his man/machine hybrid body. He can’t speak and has no memory. Instead of explaining whatever horrible occurrence left Henry in this state, his rejuvenator/wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) introduces him to a couple of tech guys. The lab is besieged by telekinetic big bad Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) and his goons, which triggers a nonstop chase through Moscow and its outskirts. Guided by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who can somehow replicate himself and appears as series of diverse avatars, Henry must mow his way through henchman (and several law enforcement officers) to get to Akan and save Estelle; whys and hows be damned.
The opening moments of Hardcore Henry are somewhat effective at creating anticipation, the lack of information and unique perspective intriguing. The escape from the lab is just disorienting enough to call attention to the camerawork and get acclimated without prompting a headache. Jimmy’s abilities cheekily reinforce videogame rules by using up multiple lives and Copley has fun with a few of the more outrageous personas.
The further we get into the chase, however, the less we care. Though it maintains a breakneck pace, the action quickly settles into a pattern of arriving at a new location, listening to a version of Jimmy provide bits of information, and then Henry using his superhuman strength and a variety of weapons to kill a bunch of people before escaping to the next set piece to do it all over again. Akan shows up every once in a while to growl villain-speak and levitate people with his powers and slam them into walls. His motives, Jimmy’s secrets, and Henry’s purpose, or lack thereof, provide no meaning for the massacres and leave it all feeling frigid.
Writer/director Ilya Naishuller stages a cool moment or two, including a highway battle that has Henry leap from one motorcycle onto a moving van and then onto a different motorcycle, but there’s not nearly enough inventiveness to sustain interest over the long haul. Naishuller is the frontman of an indie rock band and directed their music videos, also using POV, and the skills on display here are much better suited to short video clips than a feature-length narrative.
Loud, brutal, and incoherent while lacking any purpose or enough playfulness, Hardcore Henry is a failed experiment in style that’s also devoid of substance. To the film’s credit, whatever rigs were used to stabilize the GoPro achieve a sense of motion that’s way less jarring than the queasy-cam that’s prevalent in a lot of handheld or found footage movies. But when not making you nauseous is the highest praise you can give a technical element that’s the crux of the entire film, that’s not a good thing.