Do you ever have that moment at a wedding or a work function when the buffet suddenly opens but everyone just stands there to begin with? Like many things in life, nobody wants to go first for fears of being judged the wrong way. It happens a lot in music too, with many favoring existing sounds and culture preferences rather than risking being misunderstood by pioneering into a new genre (until some expert labels you as the original trend-setters a decade after you’ve flopped and broken up). Then of course, there are the film firsts. The big studio gambles that can draw mass attendance or get labeled as utter failures based on the reactions to their unique selling point. 2009's My Bloody Valentine remake was an average at best horror film, but being the first film in its genre to embrace the modern 3D resurgence saw it rake in $100 million off a mere budget of $14 million. Whereas Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’s fully green screened approach was poorly received, leaving the film unable to recover its $70 million budget and saw all plans of a trilogy scrapped. The idea is generally to innovate in technology or filming techniques and with that, arrives Hardcore Henry, one of the most ambitious films in recent years filmed entirely in first-person perspective. So is Henry a pioneer or just the first man a lousy buffet? A bit of both; while it remains to be seen if the concept has wider film appeal, Henry at least is a successful test drive and fun ultraviolent outing.
Henry (no specific actor) wakes up with amnesia from a horrible accident to be fitted with cybernetic limbs by his scientist and wife Estelle (Hayley Bennett – The Equalizer) before she’s abducted by mercenaries led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky – Vampire Academy). Now with the help of his new abilities and the mysterious Jimmy (Sharlto Copley – every Neil Blomkamp film), he must defeat Akan and rescue Estelle.
Who instantly thought of video game shooters at the mention of “1st person”? Hold on to that thought because that is exactly what Hardcore Henry is: a big screen video game without a controller. Like a game, it is orientated around frequent relentless action across a variety of different location-based levels against never-ending hordes of enemies or feature bosses.... and none of that is a bad thing. Just as the best video games can be cinematic, so to can a film with a fixed immersive perspective play to game’s dynamic. The story is bonkers at ludicrous speed (because lightspeed is too slow), and that feels completely in keeping with the visual style for feel of total “un-realism”. It often rolls from one event/set piece to the next with little more explanation than a smart phone screen map like the narrative is having a Crank style “keep moving or die” issues but more times than not, it works. The approach takes some getting used to and some won’t get there at all because the more you try and buy into this film, the more it spits your dollar back in your face but once accepted as a brain bypassing fun fest it has a lot to offer. The action is a Red Bull and adrenaline cocktail sprinkled with live hornets (and times too much but we’ll get to that later) as Henry punches and shoots his way through the vast ranks of the Akan corporation. There’s a hell of a lot of variety which stops the perspective concept becoming tiresome and no shortage of unexpected craziness. Henry churns through a vast arsenal of standard and creatively-improvised weapons. There’s some excellent chase sequences both mounted and on foot. Especially once the film hits its stride around the halfway point, it is frequently very funny and once or twice, hilarious with a dangers of bowel-rupturing. Whether it’s the randomness of the kills, the daftness of the dialogue or the oddball (but highly-effective) accompanying soundtrack, Henry is fully capable of slapping a big fat grin across your face.
But like any hardcore project, Henry comes with a few X’s. The first stems from its video game routes in that its lead character is completely lacking of character. Keeping him mute plays to the concept but outside pain, we spend the almost entire film without the slightest clue what Henry is feeling and actually care little for him beyond enjoying the plight of his immediate survival. This makes a lot of the film’s enjoyment too fleeting and temporary. Apart from Copley’s Jimmy, the rest of the cast fair little better. Especially Akan as the villain, who becomes little more than a conduit for his telekinetic powers, which aren’t even used that creatively (drink every time knocks Henry away and see if you make the end credits). Then, there is the cinematography. While, for the most part, the visual concept is fine and even great, there several points where the film massacres itself by just taking it too far at the cost of destroying all clarity.
The film works when it’s rapid but steady enough to take everything in. Yet in many moments it takes this to a frustrating extreme of incomprehensible blurred vision. It doesn’t add any of the intended tension and instead halts the momentum of enjoyment. Granted, the film is capable of building things back up again fairly quickly but at times, it becomes its own worst enemy. It must also be said that this is not a recommended film for those that suffer from severe motion sickness.
Henry’s on-screen presence was actually contributed by 10 different skilled camera men and while it is difficult to judge their performance, they do hold their continuity well and no point does it feel like a different Henry has been tagged in. Sharlto Copley by contrast is in his element and becomes the beating heart of the film. For later explained reasons, we frequently meet different versions of Jimmy allowing Copley to empty his full salvo of accents and thoroughly impressing by embracing the madness of his multiple roles. His Colonel persona even delivers the film’s only heartfelt moment. Former MTV Russia Movie Awards Best Kiss nominee, Kozlovsky, manages some charisma in the opening third but becomes more tiresome as the film progresses. Bennett is mostly on damsel duty as Estelle but does very well to establish her connection and Henry’s driving motive within the early scenes. Look out for Tim Roth in a cameo as Henry’s father and the director’s wife/singer songwriter Dasha Charusha as a dominatrix who also composed the soundtrack (credited as inspiring parts of the film).
For the feature directorial debut of a Russian Indie-rock band front man (no... seriously), this is a result of surprising quality. It’s definitely not a film for everyone with deal breakers over heavy gore based violence, lack of narrative and tolerance of the 1st person perspective, but if you’re not overly squeamish or prone to dizzy spells and open-minded towards alternative viewing experiences, then Hardcore is a unique and rewarding viewing cinematic venture. So go hardcore or go home!