Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Writer: Ilya Naishuller
Producer: Ekaterina Kononenko, Inga Vainshtein Smith, Ilya Naishuller, Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Andrey Dementyev, Dasha Charusha, Sveta Ustinova, Tim Roth
A cybernetic soldier with no memory of his past strikes out for vengeance against a warmongering madman who kidnapped his wife.
Many remember the pseudo-Cinderella story behind “The Blair Witch Project” and its Sundance Film Festival debut in 1999. Produced for peanuts, buzz behind its then-novel format was hot and bidding was even hotter among distributors looking to cash in on the uncommon concept. A seven-figure deal was struck and a subgenre was born that continues being milked by aspiring amateurs anxious for a rags to riches repeat.
“Hardcore Henry,” previously titled without the “Henry,” followed a similar path. The uniqueness of its first-person framework was among the top talk of TIFF in 2015 and an eight-figure acquisition turned feature film neophytes into the toast of the town.
Like “The Blair Witch Project” (review here), “Hardcore Henry” is not the first of its particular “found footage” kind, though both will be popularly remembered as significant symbols for their respective styles. “Hardcore Henry” should also spawn its fair share of spinoffs and copycats. Yet unlike “The Blair Witch Project” and its lost in the woods/asylum paranormal investigation, a separate subgenre of POV-perspective action extravaganzas is unlikely to be sustained with any seriously formidable longevity.
“Hardcore Henry” cannot truly be trumped, successfully sequelized, or otherwise appreciably improved upon by imitators. With more money, a louder movie could be made in the same manner. With more production polish, that movie could be even more explosive. Cast Christoph Waltz as the villain or Jennifer Lawrence as the love interest and one could capture mainstream box office allure, too.
The problem presented by the avenues above is they would spoil the scrappy edge of lo-fi charm lending “Hardcore Henry” a large part of its drunken midnight movie sheen. More importantly, they ignore that the other part of the movie’s enigma is its one-time novelty appeal whose one-time is now effectively expired. Story isn’t the selling point, outrageously over-the-top action is. “Hardcore Henry” is in truth a one-trick pony, though it deserves to be said that its one trick is undeniably impressive.
The audience sits behind the eyes of Henry, a cybernetic soldier with only a fragmented memory of his possible past. Resurrected in a laboratory by the wife who also created him, Henry has little time for reunions or explanations when a superpowered villain and his heavy-weapon henchmen Kool-Aid Man their way into the airborne facility.
Akan aims to take the tech that can create an army of warriors from mechanized dead men. When he can’t get his hands on that, Akan takes Henry’s wife Estelle instead. Aided only by a slippery scientist who is a seemingly indestructible master-of-disguise, Henry has unwittingly assumed a one-man mission to rescue his wife, topple a warlord, and possibly save the entire world from certain destruction in as frenzied of a fashion as a first-person film allows.
If that summary sounds like levels one through three of a video game based on a comic book, that’s because it is intentionally part of the “Hardcore Henry” hook to feel like a PlayStation blockbuster in silver screen form. Oddly, the games the movie brings to mind most include “Assassin’s Creed,” “Hitman,” and “Metal Gear Solid,” all of which are traditionally third-person franchises.
What “Hardcore Henry” captures even better than digitized hyperviolence seen through a protagonist’s perspective is the big brawn and big guns of a 1980s action epic, the kind for which Schwarzenegger and his ilk were best known. “Hardcore Henry” is a testosterone overdose of traditional machismo, martial arts mayhem, and explosive entertainment mixed with modestly misogynist jokes usually related to dick size.
“Hardcore Henry” at least has a sense of humor about its absurdity, and eye rolls will become laughs if you have one too. Most of the gags come as start and stop music cues played at the expense of nonplussed bystanders encountering Henry, or as knowingly winking songs accenting action with still more silliness. Such tactics wear out their welcome once there are no more fingers to count them, but if you feel like “Hardcore Henry” could use a deeper dose of subtly, you’re probably watching the wrong movie.
As exhilarating as the film can be, it feels like the right time to end once the Milk Dud sugar high wears off and only ice remains in the Coke cup. “Hardcore Henry” is a great deal of fun while it lasts, but nonstop gunfire, punches, jumps, falls, and explosions encompassing vehicles as well as human heads become tedious and banal when repeated ad nauseam over a 90-minute runtime.
It’s still hard to stifle smiles stemming from the relentlessly spirited energy combining stunning stunts and spectacular camerawork into a one-of-a-kind immersive experience. From a purely cinematic perspective, it would be disingenuous to not applaud “Hardcore Henry” for what it achieves on a technical level alone. This is as close an approximation as there is to seeing inside a parkour assassin’s POV without sacrificing personal safety and sanity, something Henry is all too eager to do on our behalf for virtually every minute of his movie.
Review Score: 75