Hardcore Henry, the videogame that you watch (film review)
My first introduction to Hardcore Henry was the official trailer released several months back. At first glance I thought I was looking at a new game -- perhaps something along the lines of Mirror's Edge. It took me a few minutes to realize it was not. Once I realized what I was looking at I was intrigued -- the film looked like it could be fun. But like many gamers who lived through the first person perspective scene in DOOM -- and the myriad of shaky-cam films of the late '90s - early '00s, I was a bit skeptical.
Hardcore Henry is filmed entirely using a GoPro camera attached to the actor playing the game's titular character -- something we're really only used to seeing in minutes-long parkour videos on YouTube. Let's face it. This could be amazing... Or really bad... I wasn't sure what to expect .
The plot is interesting enough, without requiring too much effort on the viewer's part to follow. There are a few things that keep you guessing -- and even one thing that never actually gets answered.
When Hardcore Henry starts, you're looking at three teenage boys doing what teenage boys do -- being jerks -- specifically to you (Henry). It's a short scene that rolls immediately into the credits, and ten to one you're going to forget it in all the action... At least for a while. The thing is... Don't. Because that's the only glimpse of Henry as an ordinary human that you're going to get. Once you get past those credits and Henry wakes up in a vat with his wife telling him that he's a cyborg with super human abilities...oh and by the way, no voice modulator...things are off and running with no real stop.
What's up with this Jimmy guy?
The facility Henry is located in is attacked almost as soon as he's up and able to walk around and it doesn't take long for he and his wife to have to make an escape. Once out, he runs into one of the oddest allies anyone has ever had the pleasure of having -- a somewhat questionable Brit by the name of Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley. He has the incredible talent of showing up at just the right time and seems to get around quickly. He's also the best character in the film. Then again, there are really only four main characters and he's one of the two you spend the most time with -- and, well... the other one can't speak.
Speaking of which, Henry's lack of verbal ability is definitely an interesting choice. Obviously a play on the silent protagonist of FPS games, it's designed to further seat the viewer in the persona of the character. This works and doesn't work -- and it's for much the same reason that you don't necessarily see yourself as Booker DeWitt when playing BioShock Infinite. This person you're supposed to be has a name, and a specified gender, and in the case of Henry some really nifty tattoos. So, there's not really the VR sense of, "this is me," as there is the sense of, "so I'm this guy for a while." That's okay though, because from everything we see Henry's pretty cool. He's the kind of guy that does things most people wish they were bold enough to do.
From a narrative perspective, the decision to make Henry a mute results in him being in positions he might have not found himself in, had he only had a voice.
Good vs Evil
The funny thing about Hardcore Henry is that there is one obvious bad guy, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) -- who also happens to be the Russian. All the other characters, Henry, Jimmy, Estelle (the wife Henry spends the film trying to save), are not as clearly defined. Sure, Henry seems like a good guy, but what was he like before? He did just wake up as a cyborg today. Jimmy... There's something a little off about that guy from the start. Estelle, the damsel in distress? She's also a very intelligent scientist who is apparently in charge of this cyborg program and Henry can't even remember her.
But as stated, what we do know is that Akan is one seriously bad dude. He is deliciously evil in the psycho super villian kind of way. He doesn't aspire to David Tennant as Killgrave levels of sympathetic villainy -- where you might actually feel a bit sorry for him despite what a psychopath he is. Instead, he just takes sheer joy in being evil for the sake of evil. It makes him fun to hate.
It's the eyes
Doesn't take itself too seriously
Hardcore Henry's story doesn't try too hard. It's not about being an "artsy" or a "serious" film. If anything, it's centered around just being fun. With that in mind, the writers threw in several scenes that may not have been necessary to the overall plot but that the film was definitely better for having. They gave the viewer a minute to breathe and laugh before going on to the next high octane action scene.
When I went to view the film for this review, I ended up viewing it more from the perspective of a gamer than that of a film buff. Since the film was shot entirely in the first person perspective, I situated myself dead center in the theater -- the logic being that this would allow me the best experience and not give me a skewed perspective. It's also pretty much where I'd be sitting if I were playing a first person game. I think it turned out to be a fairly wise decision.
The biggest draw of this film is likely going to be the decision to shoot it all in first person -- essentially letting the viewer see everything through Henry's eyes as he spends the hour and a half of the film going from one series of high action events to another. Unfortunately, this may also kill the film for some.
Because of the use of GoPros to shoot all the scenes, some of the more high-action areas exhibit motion blur. For someone who experiences motion sickness with FPS games, this could be a problem. There were a few scenes that had me feeling a bit queasy before they were over. However, this was minor and only occurred when there was a lot of whirling around on Henry's part -- like multi-person fights.
That said, the general visuals of the film itself were great. The majority of Hardcore Henry was shot in Moscow and the surrounding areas, and they did an excellent job of capturing the environment as well as the action -- even slowing things down at just the right time to allow the viewer to take it all in.
From the opening credits -- which are a bit like James Bond credits if they ever let Quentin Tarantino direct one -- to the closing scenes, this film is filled with highly detailed violence of all kinds. Once Henry gets going, he -- with the help of Jimmy -- shoots, stabs, and bombs his way from one end of the film to the other. By the time he's done, I'm pretty sure he's racked up a higher kill count than The Governor did during his time on The Walking Dead.
Not all of the violence is depicted in full detail, but a lot of it is. The most brutal of deaths are definitely shown in all their glory.
Rated R for a reason
The film is rated R... And for good reason. Aside from the violence there are other scenes that parents might find particularly inappropriate for their 10 year old kid. A rather significant group of scenes take place in a brothel -- that seems to do pretty fair business, and there are themes related to rape.
It might be a little frustrating for gamers
The one real issue I had with this film was a bit of an, "It's not you, it's me," issue. Watching Hardcore Henry can be a bit like watching your friend play a video game. You see all these things happening. You see Henry, who is basically an avatar, do something and you're sitting there wishing you had a way to redirect what's going on. It's similar to seeing your friend make that move that's totally the opposite of what you would have made.
General consensus: It's stupid fun
Based on my viewing of the film, I think there are going to be two main sets of opinions on it. You're either going to really enjoy it or you're going to hate it. I enjoyed it quite a bit. No, it's not thought provoking, the plot isn't going to keep you wondering for weeks -- well, except maybe that one thing, and it doesn't make any kind of statement.
That said, it is fun. It's well-filmed, full of action and humor, and is really a fantastic and cathartic way to spend an hour and a half before checking back in on reality.
(Disclosure: The writer was given a review pass for this film.)