Written by Dylan Brandsema
For all intents and purposes, Hardcore Henry is the best film based on a video game that isn’t actually based on a video game.
Essentially a feature length expansion of a music video by the director’s band called “Bad Motherfucker,” the film is – as far as I know – the first film to be shot entirely from the 1st person perspective that isn’t a found-footage horror movie. This filming style, above all, gives it two distinct characteristics: the first is that it relies solely on the audience’s ability (and willingness) to step all the way into the protagonist’s shoes, more so and in a different way than any film made previously. The second is that it is one of many in an ongoing string of modern movies that exist exclusively to sell a gimmick. Just like Richard Linklater’s 12-year experiment Boyhood, Inarritu’s one-shot wonder Birdman, and more recently, Sean Baker’s iPhone-filmed Tangerine, it’s guaranteed that much of the audience going to see Hardcore Henry will only be there to see if a GoPro-shot first-person action movie is something that can rightfully exist.
Much like the other films, how much enjoyment you get out of Hardcore Henry is dependent on how long you can tolerate the gimmick. Those susceptible to motion sickness will likely leave the theater before the end (exactly two people left my screening about 30 minutes in), and those who can tolerate it will have to decide how much they do or don’t care about plot and characters to be able to be sucked into the spectacle.
General plot synopsis: a cyborg-man hybrid, apparently named Henry, is awoken in a lab by a woman claiming to be his wife. She tells him he’s a fallen soldier. They escape from an intrusion by the cartoonishly sinister Akan (Danila Kozlovsky, looking a lot like Alak Tarr from SyFy’s Defiance) through an escape pod. After, Henry is rescued and recruited by a shapeshifting(?) handicapped man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who externally takes the form of many different characters throughout the film. The two unite to stop Akan an his evil army from creating a legion of minion clones…or something like that. Not less than a quarter way through the film, all coherence of plot, story, and characters is violently thrown out the window and is instead traded for multiple sequences of back-to-back, wall-to-wall over-the-top action that plays out like the most intense levels of a first person shooter.
I’ve mentioned video games again, and not unreasonably. The direction given to most of the film’s action set pieces is clearly influenced by a lot of action video game narratives. Despite the disaster of a story that attempts to piece it all together (or, in this case, the lack of one), it is constantly and consistently loads of fun to watch. I am not normally the kind of critic to excuse a lack of substance for substitution with straightforward surface-level entertainment, but in the case of Hardcore Henry, the overblown spectacle is just so much fun to witness that I have become a traitor to my own principle. There’s a particular sequence towards the end in which Henry battles a large army of Akan’s minions that is truly a one-of-a-kind extravaganza. He’s been beaten almost to a pulp, and just when it seems he’s down for the count, he injects two comically large needles full of adrenaline into his legs as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” begins to play. An unrelenting onslaught of chaos and carnage ensues that will make even the most seasoned action movie fans salivate with wonderment. When the sequence reached it’s climax, and Henry finally faces off with Akan one-on-one, I kept expecting to hear someone in the audience scream “Final boss!” Action cinema is rarely as engaging and as entertaining as this.
Remembering Hardcore Henry is like remembering being on a roller coaster. The details are foggy, and you can’t quite remember where the loop-de-loops were, but all you know is you had a blast. I haven’t a single clue what actually went on in Hardcore Henry, but I surely had a blast watching it. In spite of its own silliness, Sharlto Copley changing into a new character every other scene remained repeatedly amusing. The often ludicrous use of both original and contemporary music and gave the film a very odd, but quick pacing. But mostly, the expertly choreographed and brilliantly framed balls-to-the-wall outrageous array of action sequences make Hardcore Henry, in the best possible way, a high-octane action movie experience like nothing that’s come before.
It’s a movie that works if you let it work you – if you can buy into the gimmick, and set yourself free for 96 minutes, Hardcore Henry is one hell of a roller coaster ride.
OVERALL RATING: 7/10
Side note: Tim Roth’s total screen time in this film has to be the new record for well-known, popular actors having limited screen time in a movie. I wasn’t timing it, but I’m pretty positive the cut-up segments from his single shot involvement totals up to less than a minute. I wonder how much he got paid for that.
Hardcore Henry is currently in theaters across the country.
Dylan Brandsema is a staff writer for Pop-Break specializing in film and television. When he isn’t writing reviews or spending too much analyzing the medium, he’s writing and directing his own independent films as well as drinking way too much soda. Currently at full-time film major at Full Sail University, Dylan eats, sleeps, and breathes everything related to the cinema. You can follow him on Twitter @SneakyOstrich69.