Take a look at this. And also this. For those who haven’t seen them before, those music videos form a two-part story directed by Ilya Naishuller. Incidentally, Naishuller is also the frontman of Biting Elbows, the Russian rock group whose songs were featured in those videos. As the YouTube pages clearly show, both videos have racked up millions of views since they went online a few years ago.
So here we are with Hardcore Henry, in which writer/director/producer Naishuller had a feature-length running time and a reported $10 million budget to play with. Though the film isn’t a direct adaptation of the Biting Elbows videos, it does present the kind of running, gunning, sci-fi, GoPro-filmed madness to show that it was clearly made by the same guy.
(Side note: Imagine my disappointment to find that Dasha Charusha, who composed the score for this picture, is not with Biting Elbows. Instead, it seems that Charusha is Naishuller’s wife, and a respectable Russian actor/musician in her own right. Oh, and she also makes a cameo appearance as a dominatrix.)
It perhaps bears mentioning that the film was championed by Timur Bekmambetov, a fellow Russian action filmmaker who serves here as a producer. There’s also Sharlto Copley, who appears in a prominent supporting role and also threw his weight behind the project as an exec-producer. Because if anyone has an eye for the next great up-and-coming director in action and science fiction, it’s the guy who’s starred in all of Neill Blomkamp’s movies.
So what’s the plot of Hardcore Henry? Who fucking cares? There’s a hero, there’s a damsel in distress, and there’s a villain. It’s not like anything too complex would be needed or wanted here.
Our hero is the eponymous Henry. Aside from a brief prologue (with a cameo appearance from Tim Roth, for some reason), the entire film is shot from Henry’s perspective by no less than ten cameramen and stuntmen. Also, Henry is conveniently mute. It seems that some unspecified accident left Henry so completely disfigured that pretty much his entire body had to be replaced with cybernetic parts. Unfortunately, before Henry could get a voice module to go with his super-strength and near-invulnerability, the villain comes in.
Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) is a two-dimensional villain. That’s it. I’m pretty sure he’s some kind of industrialist billionaire weapons manufacturer, but nobody spends a lot of time elaborating on who he is and what he’s about. All you really need to know is that he chews the scenery in such a way that the character is a lot of fun to hate from start to finish. Oh, and also, he’s telekinetic. No, that’s never explained.
Anyway, Akan shows up to kidnap Henry’s wife (Estelle, played by Haley Bennett) and try to kill Henry, both for unclear reasons. Needless to say, Estelle is hardly much of a role, but at least Bennett is such a charming and gorgeous blonde that it gives Henry some motivation to go track her down. It may not be much motivation, but remember, the bar for suspension of disbelief has been set pretty fucking low for this picture.
The only other actor worth mentioning is also this movie’s greatest secret weapon. Sharlto Copley plays Jimmy, a mysterious stranger who shows up to assist Henry in his quest. And a huge part of what makes Jimmy so noteworthy (don’t worry, at least this much is eventually explained) is that he dies. Repeatedly. In spectacular fashion. And every time he dies, he somehow pops back up as a slightly different version of himself. Needless to say, Copley takes this opportunity to portray several different variations of the same role, to varying degrees of badass and comical. The guy even gets a brief song-and-dance number, for Christ’s sake. Copley brings so much to the movie and he shows such incredible range that the film would easily be worth the cost of admission just as a showcase for him.
But of course we’re all far more interested in outlandish action scenes presented in first-person POV. I’ll put it simply: If you liked the Biting Elbows music videos and you want 100 more minutes of it, that’s pretty much exactly what you’ll get. In terms of intensity, creativity, and gleeful ultraviolence, the film is easily on par with the music videos. And if you’ve actually seen those videos, I hope you’ll agree that would be enough for anyone. That said, the action scenes are sprinkled liberally with a lot more comic relief and even some occasional nudity, and that extra bit of spice certainly doesn’t hurt. I was particularly fond of how the Wilhelm Scream — easily the most tired and cliched sound effect known to Hollywood — was used here in a way that actually got me to laugh.
Even so, if the film had been shot as a more straightforward production, the action scenes wouldn’t have delivered anything that we couldn’t get from rewatching Shoot ‘Em Up or John Wick (aside from the sci-fi angle, anyway). It’s the first-person gimmick that really makes the film stand out, for better or worse.
On the one hand, the fresh perspective adds a surprising amount of novelty to even the most tired of action beats, and it is undeniably immersive. On the other hand, we already have a camera technique to make action scenes more immersive, and it’s called “shaky-cam”. Though I’ve certainly seen worse offenders, and the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the geography clear in spite of our more limited vision, there were still times when all the excessive movement got a little overwhelming for my taste.
Hardcore Henry is a straightforward brainless action film, without any pesky luxuries as plot or character development to get in the way of the parkour chases, shootouts, explosions, and so on. Yet in spite of the marvelous fight scenes and the incredible performance from Sharlto Copley, it’s the central first-person POV gimmick that will be the deciding factor for anyone who sees the movie.
Those who dislike abundant shaky-cam should probably save their time and money. And anyone who doesn’t like shallow adrenaline-fueled R-rated action with blood and breasts aplenty shouldn’t come anywhere near. The more squeamish will probably want to wait for DVD so they can pause and take a break. Everyone else should definitely go and have a good time.