2016 is the year of the video game movie. For better or worse, video games are making their biggest push yet to penetrate mainstream Hollywood this year, between Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet & Clank, and even Angry Birds! While it’s not based on any specific video game itself, Hardcore Henry is leading the charge beforehand as well, a video game in all but the lack of interactivity.
Hardcore Henry wears its video game inspiration pretty proudly on its sleeve, and turned heads at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it was simply known as ‘Hardcore‘, for its innovative first-person presentation, and goofy video game-style narrative. Due to its relentless, fast-paced and violent video game-style action, and the fact that the entire movie proceeds from a first-person view reminiscent of a first-person shooter game, it wasn’t long before Hardcore became a viral sensation online, after becoming one of the most popular movies at TIFF beforehand. This led to STX Entertainment snatching up theatrical distribution rights (beating out Lionsgate and Universal in a heated bidding war), and thus allowing the movie to be shared with mainstream moviegoers, now re-branded as ‘Hardcore Henry‘.
Naturally, many critics were not kind to Hardcore Henry, dismissing it as a violent, nauseating spectacle for idiot gamers, but this is obviously not a movie made for critics. Hardcore Henry is the kind of movie that most markets itself toward modern twentysomething and thirtysomething viewers, and while it is indeed a ridiculously violent spectacle that taps into the base wish fulfillment of avid gamers and action movie junkies alike, it’s certainly not a bad movie. In fact, in terms of achieving what it sets out to do, Hardcore Henry is actually pretty great!
This is a movie with a very particular audience, and that audience definitely doesn’t include people who are impatient for a narrative to invest in, easily offended or grossed out, and especially those who suffer from motion sickness, who will quickly become unable to handle the movie’s perpetually shaky, spinning and disorienting choreography. If you’re in it for the dopey, violent carnage, and you fancy yourself either a truly ‘hardcore’ action movie fan and/or gamer, then Hardcore Henry is going to be pure catnip for you. It’s the one video game-inspired movie to date that might legitimately make a case for having your controller taken away from you!
Hardcore Henry entirely unfolds from the first-person perspective of its title character, Henry, an enhanced cyborg that has awakened with memory loss, in the first of many sly jabs at video game tropes. Henry’s motivation is very simple; Rescue his kidnapped wife from a deranged villain with apparent (and unexplained) telekinetic abilities, and kill everyone who gets in his way. Both the motivation and the execution also stand as an undeniable jab at a frequent video game trope of killing impossible legions of brainless bad guys with no practical consequence, which was often done for one’s girlfriend back in 80’s video games, and true to form, Henry doesn’t explain himself, since he doesn’t even utter a word over the course of the entire movie, due to his speech modulator failing to be installed. While we’re counting nods to video game convention, there’s another common one that Hardcore Henry references and pokes at with great relish; The silent protagonist.
With Henry given no means to communicate, and no agenda beyond his simple objective, he more or less functions as being a plot device, despite being the movie’s title character. In the case of this movie though, it works to the production’s benefit. Henry exists as a vector for the action-craving audience, and through Henry, the audience lives an increasingly ridiculous set of action-filled set pieces, each making less sense than the last. The later portions of the movie do just enough to develop Henry in the sense of still making him feel like a hero, especially after several late game twists (if you’ll excuse the pun), that offer some dark secrets as to how and why Henry was created, and what his actions actually mean. For the most part though, Henry is an unstoppable badass that simply exists as the unstoppable badass that audiences crave, without any extra frills, and that’s just peachy.
Keeping Henry on task is the presence of Jimmy, a perpetually respawning aid that constantly outlines the way forward whenever necessary, being an obvious satire of both story-critical non-player characters in games that normally can’t be killed (leading to Jimmy ‘dying’ in all sorts of hilariously over-the-top ways throughout the movie, and yet he always comes back), plus the extra lives that used to sustain many retro games in days gone by, and still show up every now and again in some games today. Sharlto Copley plays Jimmy, and is one of the only recognizable names in the cast, alongside Tim Roth, despite Roth being on screen for about a combined fifteen seconds. Copley steals the show as easily the best character in Hardcore Henry though, not only being consistently funny and overblown in all of the best ways, but also taking on more than one entertaining personality as the plot demands, in yet another obvious jab at video game NPC’s.
With Henry’s wife, Estelle, played by Haley Bennett, simply serving as pretty eye candy for Henry to strive after, the rest of the movie’s sense of personality that Copley doesn’t steal and run with, belongs to Danila Kozlovsky, who plays our villain, Akan. Akan is the least explained of the movie’s characters, simply having psychic abilities for no discernable reason (even if this is yet another video game trope that the movie is satirizing, unexplained villain abilities), which makes him a bit of a deus ex machina to create an obstacle for the otherwise unstoppable Henry whenever the story demands it. Despite the fact that the movie misses opportunities to give Akan and Estelle alike more backstory though, Akan is a fun and effectively comical bad guy, with motivations so predictable and paper-thin that you can’t help but chuckle at them. That pretty much sums up the appeal of Hardcore Henry in a nutshell.
Does the story even matter in a movie like Hardcore Henry? For the most part, no. The movie is marketing itself as high-octane, hyper-stylish first-person action, and that’s exactly what it provides for audiences. The story beats work completely in service to the self-indulgent, violent fun for the most part, and for most of the movie, that’s just fine. Some story elements will inevitably leave you scratching your head, and some might have done with a tiny bit more fleshing out, but ultimately, the action-packed entertainment is so effective that it’s doubtful you’ll care for long.
Every so often, Hardcore Henry will take a breath, and add just enough story material to make sure that proceedings don’t become too mindless, but it’s not until the third act that the movie starts better fleshing out its actual backstory and stakes. Impatient viewers that are looking for a rich story for whatever reason might consider that too little, too late at that point, but even so, it’s surprising that Hardcore Henry would make an attempt at any kind of story twist or turn at all. It’s a pleasant surprise, mind you, as the late twists and turns do surprisingly manage to turn the movie on its head in a clever way, without squashing its appeal.
Even if this movie is happy to celebrate the dopiest and most silly of video game tropes for most of its runtime, you’d be surprised at how much even the thin story manages to satisfy and feel novel. Sure, most of the story unfolds the way you would expect it to, but there are just enough surprises in the narrative to allow viewers to feel like they can’t call every story turn in advance. Fortunately, when the story’s hand is revealed towards the climax, it lends itself to an especially blood-soaked crescendo of epic proportions, and ends on a speedy note that, while kind of abrupt, feels fitting for an experience that is all about the fast-paced thrills anyway.
Russian director, Ilya Naishuller, who both wrote and helmed Hardcore Henry, with some production help provided by Wanted director, Timur Bekmambetov, not only has no feature film credits to his name, but seemingly came out of nowhere. Merely making a couple of short music videos for his Russian band, Biting Elbows beforehand, Naishuller took the style of said music videos, first-person excitement, and decided to attempt the concept as a full-fledged feature film, with quite a bit of video game inspiration thrown in to set it apart. Thus was born Hardcore Henry, and considering Naishuller’s lack of experience directing feature films, he appears to be a very promising talent that no doubt has a very bright filmmaking future ahead of him!
Even if Hardcore Henry isn’t up your alley, it definitely demands respect as a masterwork of action movie directing! The movie is paced so incredibly well, is conceived with just the right balance between bloodshed, ridiculousness and heart, and is packed to the brim with outstanding stunt work. Sharlto Copley actually commented after production had wrapped that the movie’s stunt people were so impressive, that the only injuries suffered on set were five stitches and one chipped tooth. When you see the movie in action, that’s definitely astounding!
Of course, as brilliantly directed as Hardcore Henry is, there’s no doubt that it will nauseate some viewers, not just because of the frequent blood and gore throughout proceedings, but also the heavy, erratic camera motion. There’s tons of shaky cam throughout Hardcore Henry, since it was naturally filmed from a camera attached to a person, and that’s before the huge amount of scenes that have Henry rolling, leaping, turning, spinning and flying every which way over the course of the many ambitious action scenes. If you can handle the ride, it’s a huge delight that provides the perfect spike of adrenaline, especially on a theatre screen, but if you can’t, then there’s no shame in sitting Hardcore Henry out, or at least waiting until you can watch it on a smaller screen via home viewing, since those who can’t process the ambitious motion work properly will probably lose their lunch. My advance screening actually had several people exit early, looking very nauseous, so sadly, not everyone will be able to stomach the experience.
The fact that Hardcore Henry doesn’t make concessions for those with motion sickness does speak to the level of authenticity in the action though. Considering the ambition behind the action, that’s extremely commendable, especially from a first-time feature director, likely cementing Hardcore Henry as one of the most objectively impressive action movies of 2016, easily.
Hardcore Henry’s score is composed by Darya Darusha, who composes a music suite that works remarkably well in service to the movie. She even makes an appearance in the movie proper to boot, as one of the action personalities during a highly advertised highway scene. Darusha’s score predictably contains the techno/synth compositions that you would no doubt expect from a movie borrowing so heavily from modern video games, though she also mixes the score with oldies tunes during some of the otherwise especially violent sequences, which gives them a perverse sense of charm. The music suite in Hardcore Henry feels very reminiscent of the similarly cheeky soundtrack from 20th Century Fox’s recent Marvel movie mega-hit, Deadpool, and this style once again works very well in a movie that is primarily about the over-the-top fun factor.
The rest of the audio stylings in Hardcore Henry are also very well-done, not to mention incredibly squeamish! Many of the movie’s most bloody and brutal deaths are further accentuated by the stomach-turning gore noises that really hammer home just how violent Henry can be when the situation calls for it, and he’s definitely not concerned with leaving a mess in several areas of Russia! Beyond the gore though, the movie also gives Henry lots of punch during the hand-to-hand scenes, and further helps create a sense of immersion during Henry’s hard hits, falls, and time wielding some especially deadly firearms. Even considering its indie production values and microscopic $10 million budget, few modern action movies hit quite as hard as Hardcore Henry does!
Hardcore Henry routinely defies its tiny budget with some rather impressive production values for an indie action movie. A lot of this naturally comes from the comically gross gore effects throughout much of the movie, though things like a twisted 007-style intro sequence, screen effects that occasionally come up to remind viewers of Henry’s cybernetic augmentations, and some rather interesting sci-fi scenes later in the movie, do help contribute some solid flair to the production.
As you can imagine though, the real star of Hardcore Henry, even beyond its engaging first-person gimmick, is the stunt work. The way that the movie ends up so intense and so satisfying, with barely a lick of CGI, is incredibly impressive, and really speaks to the inspiration and capabilities of a talented filmmaker that knows his stuff, not to mention a legion of inconceivably talented stunt people! You won’t notice much of Hardcore Henry being made on such a miniscule budget, since the combination of the stunts and camerawork make it feel worthy of genuine big screen consideration, not just as a cool experiment, but as a very competent and exciting action movie in its own right!
Hardcore Henry could have become lost in its gimmicks and its goofiness, but despite its hostility towards motion sickness sufferers, and general pushers of good taste, this movie is nonetheless one of the most fresh and exciting action movies to hit theatres in many years, especially from the indie film circuit. True to its title, the movie does somewhat demand a hardcore audience, as in people who will not only forgive, but actively celebrate its over-the-top violence, as well as those who are able to handle its rollicking, non-stop action. If you fancy yourself a lover of pure cinematic action however, Hardcore Henry demands to be experienced on the big screen. Obviously, the same is true if you fancy yourself a devout video game enthusiast!
This movie isn’t for everyone, but those that it aims to appeal to will have loads of fun with it. This is the kind of movie for a group of friends who love savouring action-packed spectacle together, in movies and/or video games, and is best seen with those friends all going to the theatre in a group, and amusingly wincing, groaning, laughing and cheering at the sight of Henry’s rampage. Its first-person gimmick will no doubt inspire at least a few copycat movies in the years to come, but that just goes to show how effectively Hardcore Henry reinvents the wheel for action movies, while simultaneously preserving what makes them so much fun.
Like I said, this may be the one video game-inspired movie where you’ll actually be content with the lack of interactivity. More than just being a movie, Hardcore Henry is a genuine thrill ride, and I can’t wait to see what its director comes up with next! Like the finest roller coasters, some might want to pack a barf bag, and some might be a little uneasy about what’s next, but if you’re willing to savour the thrill, Hardcore Henry is a truly special experience that you won’t forget!
- Thrilling, bloody action-packed fun throughout
- Surprisingly unpredictable storyline rife with fun personality
- Many amusing nods to video game tropes
- Some character elements aren't explained well
- Aggressively unfriendly to anyone who suffers from motion sickness