Action-packed has a new definition thanks to Hardcore Henry. But is the film's first-person based premise worth a watch, or just a gimmicky excuse to set itself apart?
Filming from a first person perspective isn’t a new idea. But making an entire film in first person is new, and doing so while jam-packing it full of mesmerizing parkour-fueled stunts to take advantage of that first person perspective is. Hardcore Henry is therefore, honest to its title. Filled with gratuitous violence, drugs, guns, explosions, and insane stunts, this is an extreme action film that is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The audience becomes the main character, and by viewing the events that unfold through his eyes thanks to the advent of the go-pro, they experience the film in a way that is different from traditional action movies. Whether or not the simple switch in perspective is enough to label the film as groundbreaking will depend on each viewer’s allegiance to action films in general. Those that revel in kick-ass will surely find something amazing here. Those who want a bit more depth between their explosions will find Hardcore Henry somewhat lacking. But either way, Hardcore Henry delivers what it advertises, and you can’t fault it for a lack of commitment to its admittedly simple premise.
What Hardcore Henry lacks in substance it makes up for in other ways. For one, naysayers should consider the fact that the tone of the film is completely irreverent. This gives it an attitude and a somewhat tongue-and-cheek approach to its own excess. It is, admitting right from the start thanks to a flashback-sourced profanity, meant as entertainment. This is not a low-rent action flick demanding the audience to take its melodrama seriously. This is a film that is ultimately well executed and insanely fun to watch. It is an experiment regarding the future of action films on the cusp of the virtual reality era. It is an nostalgic ode to gritty action films of the past that did not have to turn off physics in order to wow the audience (although, it does that a bit too). There is probably too much violence, and plenty of moments to take offense towards, but shock value is increasingly the only way to grab people’s attention away from their various electronic devices. In a way, Hardcore Henry is a welcome outcome from our obsession with bigger, bloodier, more excessive action pictures. The first person perspective gives it a tighter, more focused approach that yields much more excitement than most bigger pictures could ever hope for.
Entertainment Value: Yeah, it’s bonkers for the sake of going bonkers. Over-the-top to the extreme, and not for those who typically shy away from violence. This is a film that takes a lot of risk to really bring excitement to the audience, and it delivers. It is unrelenting in its charge to create entertaining moment after entertaining moment. This is a film that is battling against the CGI-fueled plague that is Hollywood action films these days (even though it uses some CGI itself). The first-person perspective only helps in this regard. In first person, the audience becomes a character in the film. They are part of the action and even if some of the moments are similar to things we have seen in other films, you’ve never seen them like this. Yes, the constant motion can be nauseating at times (but somehow not as bad as you might expect), but the equilibrium disruption is worth it. In fact, it’s part of the experience. The filmmakers do such a great job stitching everything together that it is simply amazing to see it unfold. If this film doesn’t convince the Academy Awards that there should be a field for stuntwork, nothing will. Great (5.0/5.0)
Story: There isn’t much of one, in a traditional sense, but you probably gathered that much from the trailer. Yes, there is a plot. Antagonists, protagonists, a few good twists, motives and themes...but the goal is mayhem. The film is basically a string of well-executed stunt sequences. That can make it feel tedious at times, and the commitment to straight-out action means there isn’t much structure. Thankfully, it has a drive. The main character has motivation, and thanks to the first-person perspective, the audience feels that urgency. But no matter how compelling it is, the fact that it unfolds much like a videogame is easily the biggest potential problem that some people may have with Hardcore Henry. However, while not necessarily exhibiting much talent in storytelling, the film exudes creativity in other places. For one, it uses its first-person perspective in a clever and entertaining way. There is clear evidence that it was well planned and with so much chaos going on, that is a big compliment. The talent involved in bringing many of the stunts to screen almost makes up for the lack of typical movie storytelling. Consider that VR technology is on its way as a major player in home entertainment, and it’s easy to see that this film could be the first of its kind. Furthermore, it makes the case for potentially the most entertaining and exciting video game movie ever made. Okay (2.5/5.0)
Acting: The film’s cast is mainly extras who die quickly, but the few recurring characters are acted well enough. Sharlto Copley is by far the second coolest reason to see this film besides the first-person/action-maximum presentation. Copely injects a heart and entertaining tone to the film pretty much all by himself with some great character acting. He adds comedy, drama, and even some philosophy in a role which really shows how dynamic an actor he is. Copley’s performance(s) give the film something besides all the action to keep it entertaining, and without him doing such a great job, the film would not have worked as well. Haley Bennett provides the female/love interest and primary motivation of the film, and is convincing. The antagonist is played by Danila Kozlovsky, and even if he is fleeting in his appearances, his energy and commitment to the role make a suitable, if somewhat emotionally-distant namesis. Good (4.0/5.0)
Direction: Ilya Naishuller is a musician and music video director. The idea for Hardcore Henry came from one of his music videos, which had a similar premise. With no significant background in film, it is amazing that Naishuller was able to make Hardcore Henry feel as cohesive as it is. Although the film is not one continuous take, it feels like it is thanks to well placed cuts and a quick, fluent pace. Credit goes to Naishuller for maintaining the excitement and adrenaline the whole way through. Never does the film let up, and when it does there is always something interesting to catch your eye. The use of first person perspective has many unique challenges, and Naishuller seems to have thought them all through. The camera is always placed so that it is easy enough to tell what is going on. If the main character is performing some sort of action, his hands are always in view. When getting tossed around, the camera flies with the same physics that you would expect for a human body, including bouncing and rolling where required. Still, a great concept for a film can only carry you so far. There are moments where Naishuller inexperience with feature films shows. There are times that the action can be a bit confusing or overwhelming, and the film does move too quick for the emotional bits to feel natural, but those issues don’t compromise the overall product. Good (4.0/5.0)
Production: While the filmmakers themselves may not be very experienced, the production of Hardcore Henry shows proficiency. It simply feels exciting like a big-budget action blockbuster but doesn’t require extravagant set pieces or over-stylized presentation to get there. Hardcore Henry is efficient. It uses special effects, but they don’t dominate. It has ridiculous action sequences, but since the audience is experiencing them firsthand, they feel more natural and realistic. Subtitles, smartphone screens, computer screenshots, flashbacks, and even the music is utilized to explain things to the audience in order to drive the plot forward and even add comedy despite never changing camera angles. Finally, in a movie with a lot of violence, the makeup and costumes play an important role, and that is no exception here. The frequent sight of bloodied henchmen not only hammers home the unrestrained premise of the film, but it adds a certain honesty to the main character’s situation. Speaking of honesty, Hardcore Henry isn’t a perfect film. There are moments that feel less real than others, and the excitement in witnessing the action in first-person wears off after a while which makes the climax seem less extreme than it should be. All of this makes it a rather monotonous film, but if you like the flavor than you'll be thuroughly entertained. In fact, as a film, Hardcore Henry is the ultimate escapist fantasy; it makes the action movie more accessable than ever. Good (4.0/5.0)
What's Bad: It is ultimately a gimmick, plot is lacking, scene after scene of extreme action loses its excitement after a while.