Hardcore Henry (2015)

Well, THIS…was inevitable. EVENTUALLY someone was going to attempt an entire film shot from the 1st Person perspective of the protagonist. We’ve seen this approach attempted before, in specific ‘gimmick’ sequences in less-than-perfect flicks, like ‘Doom’ (2005) and ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), but I’m sure the idea has always been there, bubbling just below the surface, waiting for some crazy bastard to try it. And that crazy bastard is a Russian dude named Ilya Naishuller…and this his first feature-length movie. I’ve got to say…this is not a bad way to announce yourself to the rest of the movie-going world. He got a lot right…but he also got some shit wrong too…in my humble, non-movie-making opinion. For a little context, I’m not a video game guy…I’m just not. Never have been. Sure…getting drunk with buddies and geeking out on games for a night is totally cool…I just don’t seek them out on my own. I keep meaning to…my girlfriend and I have a PS3, with a modest but solid selection of what look like some pretty good titles…it just never occurs to me to fire it up. I always get bored of whatever game it is after about an hour. That being said, when I have played on my own, it’s always been with a keyboard and mouse, and they were almost always ‘First Person’ Shooters’ (Luddite, that I am). So, almost by default, I was intrigued by this idea, when I first got wind of it as a ‘Crowd Fund’ project that sprang up as a ‘proof of concept’ sequence / short film online a couple years ago, named ‘Hardcore’. It was a ridiculously energetic and brutally violent sequence that I couldn’t help but to get pulled into. Being that this is a Russian flick, I did NOT expect to see it turn up at my local Landmark Cinema’s location. I envisioned some puny art-house / foreign film One Night Only affair somewhere in downtown Vancouver, so color me surprised when my usual theatre had it slotted in with the normal North American fare, like any other release. My girlfriend was down for the count from a nasty cold that’s been relentlessly plaguing her for over a week now, and I didn’t think this would be her cup of tea anyway, so I snuck out and disappeared into the darkness of the movie theatre to see how this video-game-come-to-life experiment from the wilds of Russia would turn out.
First things first: The Story. Harking way back to my video-game-come-to-life reference, that description DEFINITELY applies to the plot of this one. Basically…it’s this: ‘Henry’ is some ‘rough n tumble’ dude with some powerful cybernetic limbs, tattoos and other electronic add-ons. After gaining consciousness in a stasis tube, in a mysterious lab, he meets a sexy nurse named ‘Estelle’ (Haley Bennett), who is then revealed to be his wife. After some very ‘Robocop’-like sequences of calibration and repair, the facility is set upon by one of the worst villains I’ve EVER seen on film; a foppish, peroxide-blond goof with a questionable accent and stupid-looking fake monster contacts named ‘Akan’ (Danila Kozlovsky)…who also has some suspiciously ‘Akira’-like psionic abilities (there’s no explanation given for his abilities of non-physical object manipulation…none). Anyway, this douchebag starts violently killing off the staff of this place and, through blind luck, ‘Estelle’ and ‘Henry’ get the chance to flee. This is our first solid blast of action and the flick doesn’t let up from this point, from the moment they jump into a phone booth-like escape pod (revealing the facility to be located on a high altitude blimp…cool idea, with no backstory given) to the rolling of the Final Credits. Basically, ‘Estelle’ is captured by a slew of faceless goons and, with the aid of a series of clones named ‘Jimmy’ (Sharlto Copley), ‘Henry’ goes into Berserker Rage Mode, and stabs, shoots, detonates, burns and beats the living fuck out of any one who either comes for him, or stands in his way.
This is a violent goddamn flick. Normally, that doesn’t bother me, but during the Opening Credits, I began to get a little concerned about the ‘flavour’, and not-so-subtle mean-spirited undertone that was emerging. We’re treated to highly-stylized and surprisingly brutal depictions of bloody violence and murder, in our faces. As in:  credits are playing over slo-mo footage of shit like a broken bottle eviscerating a PoV victim, or a semi-auto handgun being jammed into a gut and fired. The one that got me was the too-close-for-comfort depiction of an ugly combat knife sliding grotesquely into an exposed neck, and as if that wasn’t enough, we get to see it burst out the other side too!! Yay! So that intro had me a little weary from the ‘get go’. Maybe it’s me now creeping toward my 40’s (Eeeek!), but vicious cinematic violence doesn’t quite have the same allure that it did in my teens and early 20’s. I pay attention to the news, and we hear about all kinds of depraved and terrible shit happening out there in this dysfunctional-as-hell world of ours…and sometimes it ‘gets’ to me. Now don’t get me wrong, in the right context and style of execution, I’m all for a good dose of brutal (but fake!) violence in a movie, but this was somehow a little too raw, a little too soon, to have me loving it. I understand that they were being honest, right off the bat, about what this flick was going to be but still…! One thing is certain…the use of the word ‘hardcore’ in the title is actually very accurate and the film-makers let us, the audience, know it right away.
The Acting is a mixed bag. Virtually all of the actors are Russian ‘unknowns’, broken up by a weird cameo by Tim Roth (‘Pulp Fiction’ ), and the stellar acting chops of Mr. Sharlto Copely (‘District 9’). Playing a series of helpful clones, each with a very specific and totally different ‘type’, would’ve been an acting challenge at the best of times but here, he handles it like a champ. He was a joy to watch and he certainly added something to the experiment that is ‘Hardcore Henry’.
One of the big issues for me was going to be how well the constant action and 1st Person Point of View would work and, more to the point, would it be followable, and not motion sickness-inducing. Sometimes it was…sometimes it wasn’t. There were definitely sequences that were handled superbly, and got me genuinely excited and caught up in the crazy shit happening onscreen (more than once, I found myself all tensed up against my will). Then there were others where it felt like I was being bludgeoned into submission by a hectic flurry of indiscernible activity and sound. Like the Acting…it was a mixed bag. For what it was though, I’d say that it worked more than it didn’t.
Speaking of ‘sound’, the Sound Design was pretty impressive. A couple times, the gunfire was loud and sharp enough that, had I been at home, I would’ve quickly reached for the stereo remote. But the shots, ricochets and body hits all carried the impression of ‘hard impact’, and it helped further pull me into the narrative. In this aspect, it pretty much all worked.
All in all, I was curious to see how ‘Hardcore Henry’ would turn out and I think that it MOSTLY turned out pretty well…for what it was, and mostly on a ‘technical achievement’ level. And what it was, was a First Person Shooter-come-to-life with the most basic of plots and one of the lamest ‘bad guys’ I’ve EVER seen. It really does boil down to *shoot, shoot, shoot…jump…run…kick, punch…shoot shoot (something explodes)…run to next way-point…repeat*. Yea, they attempt a ‘twist’ at the end, but anyone with half a brain would’ve seen it coming through the mind-numbing flurry of fast movement and bloody, unapologetically brutal violence that spills across the screen for 96 minutes. The format also doesn’t lend well to giving us a character to properly root for, as the chances for solid character development just aren’t there…especially when the main character is literally rendered mute by the writers and director. But that was not the main goal of this movie…’Hardcore Henry’ wanted to prove that it could be done, and they decided to just ‘go for broke’ with their content, sometimes working…sometimes not. It may just be the ‘Russian’ (as perceived by an untravelled and culturally ignorant Canadian), but there’s a mean-spiritedness to the movie, that may put some people off…and that’s totally fair. Some boundary’s are definitely pushed in this one. People who also have issue with motion sickness, or don’t handle the ‘shakey cam’ aspect well should probably avoid this one too…at least in the theatre. To those of of you out there who can handle it, and are curious to see how well this idea came to pass…I’d say that it’s worth your time to see it on The Big Screen. It’s a cool movie with some undeniable flaws…but for a lower budget foreign action film, it’s most certainly something of an achievement. I’m now genuinely curious to see what this director does next.

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