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There have been many cult action movies over the year – whether it had a great star like Bruce Lee, memorial character like in Leon or considered to have revolutionized the genre, i.e. The Raid: Redemption. The Russian-American actioneer Hardcore Henry hopes to join them because of its first player filming style. But does it make the grade?
Hardcore Henry opens with a man, Henry, awakening in a laboratory with his left arm and leg missing. A scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett), tells Henry that she is his wife and gives him some robotic enhancements. But the facility is raided by a man with psychic powers, Apex (Danila Kozlovsky). Although Henry escapes, Estelle is captured. Fortunately for Henry he is assisted by Jimmy (Shaltro Copley) who doesn’t let being killed several time stop him. Together they rampart through Moscow and its outskirts to keep Henry alive, find Estelle and stop Apex.
A movie that is willing to put ‘Hardcore’ in its title needs to live up to it – and Hardcore Henry does succeed from an action standpoint. The opening credits show men being shot, stabbed and hit by baseball bats before we get to the meat of the action. For audiences longing for a hard-R actioner, Hardcore Henry delivers – heads are blown off, guards are shot to pieces and it’s simply cathartic to watch pure violence. The PoV style is a gimmick, but it works for the most part as we watch shoot outs, foot chases and car chases. There is a slight confusion when there are fist fights, but as Henry becomes a better fighter the fighting becomes easier to follower, especially the final battle.
The use of the PoV style is not revolutionary in itself, it has been used in horror movies like Psycho, Peeping Tom and Halloween, it is also the basis for the British sitcom Peep Show, served as a narrative device for Guy Ritchie’s Nike commercial’s “Take It To The Next Level” and the music video for Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up“. But it is still refreshing to see in the action genre and writer/director Ilya Naishuller is inventive with the action sequences and he relishes in the violence – heads are blown off, Henry uses an array of weapons, including barbed wire as brass knuckles and pure bloody goodness that we do not get to see enough of these days.
The PoV is also famously used in video games and Hardcore Henry is unashamed about these origins – it’s like what would happen if Rockstar Games made a movie. Henry is given missions to help his survival, getting phone calls from involved parties after completing a task with directions to the next location he needs to go to – like a Grand Theft Auto game and has larger than life supporting characters like two PVC clan biker chicks with swords. But sometimes the video game logic of the movie defies any real world logic – like how Apex makes a load of dead bodies that Henry could use as platforms and punch him.
One of the biggest criticism made against Hardcore Henry is its story – or lack of it. It is a standard storyline of a man who has to save his girl and has to kill anyone who gets in his way. But in Hardcore Henry‘s defense, the movie was told through Henry’s eyes. We only know what he knows and fans of these type of movies are not going in for revolutionary storytelling. The Raid, John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road are seen as modern action classics and they are not exactly Shakespeare. A bigger issue is Henry himself – a blank slate: we don’t get to know much about him. His memory has been erased and he cannot speak. In Peep Show the audience do get to hear the deepest darkest thoughts of the main characters. It could be argued that the filmmakers are making a point that the player character in first person shooters seem to walk around with a ball-gag in their mouths and blindly follow orders.
Copley is credited as an executive producer, but I do not know whether it’s because he loved the project or simply got the credit because his name ensured funding. Regardless, Copley was clearly having a blast as the various versions of Jimmy, from a nerdy scientist, a World War 2 British soldier, a punk, a coked-up prostitute lover and doing his best Jason Statham impression. His characters were huge exaggerations and were fun to watch – weirdly his various English accents were a lot more convincing in Oldboy despite their comedic intent. Copley is a naturally funny and he has good interactions with Henry who has to communicate with hand gestures.
Kozlovsky as Apex has the powers of the kids in Chronicle yet he looks and sounds like a Russian version of Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Apex was more threatening than the new version of Lex Luthor – even if there is no explanation on why he had psychic powers. Bennett as Estelle was an absolute beauty.
For action junkies Hardcore Henry is a must see, a balls to the wall experience that is unlikely to be repeated. It lacks depth and plot but it was inspired madness and the best video game style movie since Edge of Tomorrow.