Hardcore Henry is a frantic eight-ball, one fueled with the power and energy of Red Bull, prepubescent hormones and restless leg syndrome. It’s a jarring shot to the balls of static and relentless intensity, a film that’s at one both incredible and tedious in its execution from the first minute onward. Shot entirely on GoPro cameras strapped to the heads of professional life-risking stuntmen, it’s a gimmick of a movie that’s impeccable to its style and craft, but never quite able to deliver anything beyond its initial test reel. It’s exactly the type of cinematic experience that wins you over with its quick-edited trailers and death-defying in-your-face stunts, but one unfortunately never able to excel beyond its flimsy plot and confusing character motivations.
In an age of first-person shooting games and virtual reality simulations, is Hardcore Henry, the feature directorial debut of Biting Elbows’ frontman Ilya Naishuller, truly the future of cinema? It’s hard to say, but probably not. There are simply too many limitations in its admirable-but-mildly nauseating format to truly take off. At least, at this time. But there’s no denying the brass cojones on display here. In the right moments, it can, indeed, be just as batshit-crazy fun as it promises. But those moments often feel few-and-far between, especially after irksomely familiar set pieces and thinly-stretched plot mechanics make Naishuller’s first film more muddled and unintentionally haphazard in its execution.
Hardcore Henry is exactly the kind of looney, maniacal, politically incorrect, no-holds-barred balls-to-the-wall punk-rock extravaganza I should have loved. That I walked away feeling kinda sluggish, indifferent and beaten in all the wrong ways suggest that either I’m getting too old for these kinds of rodeos, or this movie wasn’t exactly what I hoped it would be. Either way, I couldn’t help but leave a little empty handed. Was it truly too hardcore, or was something lost in perspective here?
What constitutes as a plot in Naishuller’s is basically little more than a launching pad premise to get us from one POV action beat to the next POV action beat. Through the eyes of Henry, we’re transported into a futuristic holding cell where a beautiful young scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett) reveals that our on-screen avatar has lost his left arm, left leg and a majority of his memory in an off-screen accident. He also, at least temporarily, lost his ability to speak. In the process of gaining mechanic limbs and readjusting to life after an extended coma, Estelle lays another bombshell: she and Henry are actually happily married together and will run away together after he recovers from this madness. But just as Estelle’s groundbreaking medical procedures are set into place, they’re attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a menacing warlord with Albino features who kidnaps Henry’s wife and kills her co-workers in the process. Set on revenge, our unseen lead is set to take action into his own hands until he runs into the mysterious Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a bizarre shapeshifter of a man who practically impervious to death and gives Henry directions on how he can save his love.
From there, we follow Henry in a massive killing spree across Moscow as henchmen are slaughtered left-and-right and explosions, car crashes and gun-fire come a-plenty. So what’s not to love here? Well, it just too little, too late at this point. As much as the film would protest otherwise, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this before. In terms of plot structure, Hardcore Henry is noticeably inspired by the Crank movies, and sometimes in all the right, nitty gritty ways too. But this first-person spectacle has already been done in cinema by the likes of Enter the Void, Cloverfield, 2012’s Maniac remake, Chronicle, The Blair Witch Project and, well, basically any found footage movie ever made. Always Sunny also had an entire episode shown directly from Frank’s POV this season. The novelty isn’t in the idea so much but rather the execution. And in those terms, Naishuller’s debut feels a little too limited for its own good — despite the ever-visceral action on display throughout these 96 minutes.
To call the plot of Hardcore Henry nonsensical would be an understatement. Naishuller, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t give a damn whether or not any of this makes a lick of sense, so long as you follow along with the insanity and have a good time. And I’m always for having a good time. Maybe too much so, according to some of my friends. But Naishuller falsely assumes having video-game aesthetics means you don’t have to have a solid narrative. The main problem here is that most first-person shooter games generally have a plot — at least, as far as I can tell. I’m not much of a gamer, honestly, but I know most video games today have more than a threadbare series of events to keep gamers’ hands compulsively glued to their controllers. Though Hardcore Henry carries itself on the loosest of story threads, it can’t help but feel disorganized and discombobulated even within the confines of its straight-as-an-arrow focus.
The plot grows more scattershot than simply crazy, and while its goofiness is always inspired, its mythology fails to add up. It’s evident most things happen because the filmmakers thought it was just a fun idea at the time. For example, characters are elevating elementals just because it’s cool, dammit. And executive producer Copley’s loose-fitted backstory lets him play variety of supporting characters, each wackier than the last, just because it gives the District 9 star the chance to not only experiment with different wigs and costumes, but also pull an Edge of Tomorrow and constantly get murdered in a series of bizarre, downright comical ways. But all this does is kill any sense of stakes or tension. Henry is such a bona fide killing machine that he never truly feels at odds with his opponents and, therefore, it doesn’t seem like he’s in any serious risk or peril throughout the growingly monotonous, if exceptionally well-performed, action sequences. There are never any firm rules established in this universe, and while its off-the-cuff mentality is fun in certain contexts, it makes for a meandering film before long — one that also grows more repetitive and less impressive as it goes along.
What’s more, the one-person viewpoint doesn’t allow the full scope of these incredible practical stunts get their full due. Only one motor chase sequence on a highway, seen heavily in the promotional materials, and the final climax fight get a full scope and widespread perspective. Everything else feels filtered and minimized, and that includes some of the neat production designs, impressive low-budget special effects and committed-to-the-teeth performances. Everyone involved, both in front and behind the camera, are really giving this one their all, and that Hardcore Henry doesn’t give them their full due is just a disservice to their amazing sacrifices and whole-hearted beliefs in Naishuller’s marginalized vision.
But one shouldn’t belittle what is accomplished here. It’s a valiant effort on everyone’s part, and while it’s not a full-on success, it’s filled with passion, dedication and wholehearted convictions at every first-person turn. Unfortunately, I didn’t love Hardcore Henry. In fact, I don’t even think I liked it all that much. But I respect its unapologetically tone and lowbrow kookiness in the face of adversity and ill-logic. But for all the winking absurdity and malicious imagination on display here, there’s just something missing here. It’s not heart, and it’s not brains. Though this is one dumb movie, it has every right to be. And it’s certainly not lacking persistence. What I guess it’s missing is follow-through, not in terms of execution but providing something we really, truly haven’t seen before, as promised to us from the very beginning.
Once you’re adjusted and familiar with the premise and gist of Naishuller’s first film, it doesn’t exceed itself beyond simple means. No matter how impressive its action can be, it begins to lose its stunning spark all-too-quickly. What worked so beautifully in small doses becomes aggravatingly dull after a while, all before even the half-hour mark. And that’s something I never thought I would say about this film. Beyond some of its questionable-at-best depictions of women and its underlying homophobia, Hardcore Henry is just a little too meager for its own good. Despite the sometimes unbelievable feats and off-the-cuff enthusiasm it transpires, it soon begins to feel wearisome at best and unbearable at its worst. And inspired moments inevitably become too little and too far in-between to salvage it from overwhelming boredom after all while. For a movie that calls itself hardcore, it feels just a little too light for its own well-being. And that’s a perspective I’m disappointed to take.