Gimmicks have been a part of the film industry for decades, from Smell-O-Vision to “found footage," and director Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry is a movie that really comes out of that tradition. The big trick here is that the entirety of the intense action is captured from a first person perspective, with the filmmakers making use of a GoPro and a specialized helmet to put the audience in the mind of the titular character for the entire runtime of the story. It’s a new style only allowed by the impressive advances in technology we’ve seen in the last few years, and despite the somewhat exhausting nature of the story, it all comes together as a fun cinematic adventure.
Very much feeling like a video game come to life, the movie drops you into its story just as Henry wakes up from being brought back from the dead – experimental procedures depriving him of all his memories and the ability to speak. Unfortunately, there really isn’t any time given to recuperate from the shock of these details, as Henry (and the audience through his eyes) is thrown into an remarkably violent adventure that not only has him trying to save Estelle (Haley Bennett), Henry’s wife and the woman who brought him back to life, but also stop an insane, telekinetic warlord named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) who wishes to use an army of bio-engineered super soldiers to take over the world. Running through the streets of Moscow and getting help from his buddy Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), Henry must not only race to save the day, but also keep his own body operating in the process.
When any film as stylized as Hardcore Henry comes along, the natural question to ask is whether or not the aesthetic holds up for the entire runtime, and in this particular case the answer is “mostly yes.” The movie makes no real attempt to ease you into action from the first-person perspective, as the violent action kick-starts almost immediately, and it never really slows down to let you catch your breath. This probably sounds absolutely delightful to all action-junkies, but there is a point towards the three-quarter mark of the film – when Henry is trying to escape a large building filled with armed gunmen – that a sense of fatigue begins to be felt (a combination of both the cinematography style and the non-stop killing and death). The movie's successfully able to pull you back in for its crazy skyscraper-set finale, but the exhaustion is a real factor, and it’s not hard to see that some will probably be more sensitive to it than others – depending on your tolerance of the subject matter.
Purely from a technical filmmaking standpoint, Hardcore Henry is an excitingly ambitious film, and a great deal of credit goes to both the cinematography and the editing – which really serve as the glue that keeps the entire thing together. First person is an incredibly hard perspective to shoot, due to the need to both fully cover a scene while also creating an organic, natural feel that convinces the audience you’re looking through someone’s eyes. It’s a key ball that the movie thankfully never drops, and you really do feel locked into the single point-of-view for the entire 96-minute runtime.
Where the editing steps in is to solve what could be described as the style’s “real-time” problem. The movie doesn’t cut away from its first-person perspective, but the story is often left with the issue of getting Henry from Point A to Point B and not wanting to bore the audience with the protagonist just running a lot. As a result, there are key cuts that have to be completely fluid, as not to disrupt the audience’s connection with the character, and this is something that Hardcore Henry does notably well. For example, even though you’re aware that part of the hero’s trip from assassinating Slick Dmitry to meeting Jimmy at a brothel was cut out, it successfully never takes you out of the story and overtly reminds you that you’re watching a movie.
Deserving of special mention is also Sharlto Copley, who plays what is easily the most bananas role of his career and gives a really tremendous performance. It’s a bit hard to talk about Jimmy’s part in Hardcore Henry, as it’s something you’re better off figuring out and just experiencing while seeing the film on the big screen, but it’s a role that allows the South African actor to really stretch his range, and from scene-to-scene he is the most exciting thing to watch as you never know what to expect from him next. As ridiculous as most of the movie is, it’s Copley’s part that sends it just the right level of over-the-top to establish the ideal tone.
Hardcore Henry is most certainly not a movie for everyone – particular those who are prone to cinematic motion sickness or take issue with full-on big screen violence and insanity – but it’s a film that’s blessed with the clear knowledge of exactly who it’s for and delivers specifically for that crowd. It’s an impressive and ambitious bit of filmmaking, and it’s not hard to see it inspiring a whole lot more titles like it in the future.