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Review: Hardcore Henry (2016)

Hardcore Henry (2016)

Directed by: Ilya Naishuller

Premise: An assassin wakes up in a laboratory where he discovers that his body has been infused with cybernetic enhancements. He then goes on the run from gangsters with the help of a mysterious technician who keeps reappearing in different disguises.

What Works: The story premise of Hardcore Henry is not all that different from many other sci-fi shoot ’em up movies. What is novel about this picture is the way that it is shot. Hardcore Henry takes place entirely from the point of view of the title character, as though the camera were his eyes, and the entire film unfolds from his perspective. Although it looks like the found footage format, this is something categorically different. Seeing these events through someone else’s eyes means that the visual style can’t use the same cheats of a found footage picture but because the character is disoriented, the filmmakers are able to incorporate formalistic elements. Henry cannot talk and he is thrown into a chaotic and violent scenario while trying to sort out what is going on. In that respect he’s in the same position as the audience and the filmmakers have created a premise that matches the unusual format of the picture. The unique approach to this film allows the moviemakers to create some bizarre visuals and Hardcore Henry is frequently bonkers. This is not a movie about plot or coherent storytelling; Hardcore Henry exists to provide a visceral and violent first-person experience and the movie mostly succeeds at that. As a technical exercise, there’s a lot to admire in Hardcore Henry. The film’s illusion of continuity is mostly seamless and whatever the problems of the movie, it must be said that Hardcore Henry is unlike anything else in the cinema marketplace right now. The picture also features a notable performance by Sharlto Copley as the mysterious technician who shows up to repair Henry’s circuits and generally help him along. Each time Copley’s character appears he is in a different guise, recalling Peter Sellers’ multiple performances in Dr. Strangelove.  
What Doesn’t: The format of Hardcore Henry is a gimmick and that gimmick is both the greatest strength of the movie and a critical weakness. The moviemakers put the audience in Henry’s point of view but who he is remains a mystery. The style of Hardcore Henry prevents the movie from establishing Henry as a character and it foils the audience from achieving any kind of empathy with him. That means the movie fails as a piece of drama. The filmmakers are able to give the audience a first person perspective but there isn’t much going on in this movie besides the bloodshed and there are no dramatic stakes to anything. That limits the impact of the action; the violence can only ever have a superficial meaning and it only has immediate moment-to-moment gratification. That may be the point but it’s exhausting to watch. If anything, Hardcore Henry illustrates the difference between video games and feature films and the folly of trying to merge those genres. Hardcore Henry duplicates the style of first-person-shooter video games like Doom and Call of Duty and watching this movie is a lot like watching someone else play a video game. A video game’s main focus is not plot or character although it may have those things. The satisfaction of a video game is found in the interactivity between the user and the imagery. Feature films don’t have that same kind of interactivity but cinematic storytellers do have the freedom of omnipresence that a gamer cannot experience; even if a movie provides the similar thrills of shootouts and car chases, the action of a feature film takes on a different kind of meaning because of the drama. Hardcore Henry robs the video game of interactivity and the motion picture of character and story. As a result the movie is uninvolving and largely pointless.

Bottom Line: Despite some impressive technical craft, Hardcore Henry is a less interesting and less audacious version of Crank. Its ambition is admirable but that’s not enough to make up for the movie’s vacuity.

Episode: #591 (April 17, 2016)