If nothing else, Hardcore Henry is dedicated to its premise. Shot entirely with a camera mounted on a mask worn by the stuntman who plays the titular hero, the film captures with uncanny accuracy the look and tenor of a first-person shooter. Unfortunately, the pleasure of most, if not all, first-person shooters comes in actually controlling the action, not in storytelling or characterization. Also unfortunate is the film’s regard for humanity, which is also very much in keeping with the attitudes expressed by the average first-person shooter. It’s a misogynistic, homophobic, vile work of juvenilia, which will undoubtedly garner an undeserved cult following amongst the insensitive young men at which it is aimed.
As one might expect, Hardcore Henry’s premise is loose framework by which the action set pieces that are its hook are strung together. This is not, in itself a knock on the film. Great action films have functioned beautifully with paper-thin plots before, just look at the recent entries in the Fast & Furious franchise. But Hardcore Henry limits all the details of its plot to what are essentially the equivalent of video game cut-scenes, short vignettes in which a character explains to Henry, the audience avatar, what is happening and what he needs to do. The opening credits sequence features slow-motion shots of extreme violence. A flashback follows, in which Henry’s father (Tim Roth) responds to Henry’s beating at the hands of neighborhood bullies by looking into the camera and uttering the film’s first line of dialogue: “You little pussy”. Hardcore Henry’s story then kicks off with our hero waking from near death in a futuristic operating table, missing an arm and a leg. A woman informs us she is Henry’s scientist wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett) and that all of Henry’s memories have been erased while he is fitted with superior cybernetic limbs. After a bit more cursory exposition is gotten out of the way, but before Henry’s ability to speak can be restored (a flimsy plot device that serves the dual purposes of maintaining the illusion that the audience is Henry and sparing the camera operator having to do any acting), the airborne facility which houses Estelle’s work is raided by the film’s telekinetic villain, the Euro-trash Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), and his limitless army of mercenaries. Estelle is kidnapped, sending Henry on an increasingly gruesome mission to rescue her.
The film’s set pieces play out as different missions in a video game, and fans of first-person shooters will easily recognize many hallmarks of the genre: the car mission, the sniper mission, the stealth mission, boss battles, et cetera. Henry is guided through these various stages by Sharlto Copley, playing several different versions of a character named Jimmy. Jimmy or, rather, the “Jimmies”, function to explain what is going on at any point in film and why, lest it seem that Hardcore Henry is simply shifting from action sequence to action sequence nonsensically. For all of this film’s flaws, the action is not uninspired; the various gun-and-fistfights are meticulously well–choreographed, and mimic the video games that inspired them perfectly. That mimicry is would almost certainly be more successful were it relegated to a single memorable action sequence, but Hardcore Henry is married to its aesthetic for better or worse (worse). Let the motion-sick be warned.
While the first-person gimmick that is the film’s raison-d’être does wear out its welcome by film’s end, it is far from Hardcore Henry’s biggest problem. As the audience for first-person shooters is, or at least is assumed to be, teenage heterosexual boys, it also expresses a view of humanity typical of teenage heterosexual boys: other people (with the exception of your fellow heterosexual male friends) are not people. Women here are sexual fantasies, treacherous bitches, or some combination of the two. The film’s most loathsome sequence is set in brothel in which all of the assembled sex workers are dressed in the same blond wigs and black lingerie, reduced to anonymous bodies to be ogled then mowed down indiscriminately when a gunfight breaks out. When Jimmy spots an approaching enemy, armed with a flamethrower, he refers to the villains flame-retardant suit as “the gayest jacket I’ve ever seen” (ha-ha). Similarly, the film’s most charming (and technically impressive) scene, in which several versions of Jimmy perform Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, is undercut a few minutes later when Jimmy feels the need to assure the audience that even though he likes musical theater he is “straight as an arrow”. It’s a film with an astounding lack of empathy. The deaths of innocent bystanders are given no weight except to heighten the sense of danger to Henry, the only character who matters. The general lack of humanity could be forgiven if, even once, the film would do something to acknowledge its lack of humanity, some sort of “meta” nod to let the audience know that it is simply reflecting video game morality, not showing us how kick-ass awesome it is.
Hardcore Henry is not a good movie but it definitely has the feel of a film that will amass a small cult of acolytes who will dismiss its detractors as critics who don’t understand it as homage to video games. They will be wrong. It is impossible to see Hardcore Henry and not understand what writer-director Ilya Naishuller is going for. The film looks and feels like a video game, but video games are rarely funny and seldom tell compelling stories, though there are notable exceptions (here’s looking at you The Last of Us). The creators of video games have long strived to make games more like films; Hardcore Henry stands as evidence of why that equation is seldom reversed.
Hardcore Henry/ Director: Ilya Naishuller/ Writer: Ilya Naishuller/ Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth/ R/ 96 min.