Having a few first-person shots in a film can amplify a sequence, giving audiences ‘you are there’ moments to further the experience. There are a number of examples that we’ve become accustomed to, such as having a bad guy point-of-view when a victim is being stalked in a horror film or cutting to a team member’s chest/head cam in some action flicks. But save for a few features boasting first-person elements, such as Russian Ark, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Enter the Void, we haven’t really had a completely point-of-view action feature like this before. Does it work? Well, mostly, but your enjoyment level will come down to what you’re expectations are with a film such as this.
The opening credits sequence offers up highly stylised moments of brutality, like a knife entering a neck and a bullet entering a head, in gleefully gratuitous slo-mo. From the get-go, it’s clear that Hardcore Henry isn’t aiming for anything subtle or restrained. This is pulpy, in-your-face stuff, and it’s highly proud of it.
The plot tells of Henry, or you, the viewer, depending on how you want to look at it, who awakens in a strange lab of sorts. Missing a leg and an arm, Henry is provided with robotic prosthetics. We quickly learn that his nurse, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is actually his wife. Before you know it, you’re (Henry) being chased by a telekinesis-powered super villain and his many, many disposable goons, and Estelle has been taken. With the help of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), the race is on for Henry to stop the bad guy’s dastardly plan and get back his girl. Crazy shit ensues.
Filmed using GoPro cameras and completed with the assistance of crowdfunding, there’s no denying that writer-director Ilya Naishuller has quite an achievement with Hardcore Henry. You’re here for first-person action, and boy do you get it. Just one of the many spectacular moments on offer here would be a downright impressive video in its own right. The stuntwork and technical prowess on display is simply fantastic, providing a number of ‘how did they do that’ scenarios, amplified by an impressive sound design and just the right dash of CG wizardry.
The first-person mayhem is the film’s primary calling card, and those after insane scenes begging to be shown off to buddies need look no further. The car chase, the tank, the chopper, that deliriously entertaining finale, action aficionados will have a ball, assuming they can withstand the potentially dizzying camera work of course.
So yes, the ultra-kinetic insanity will most certainly have its appeal for the right viewers, but it’s the overall narrative arc and scene-to-scene flow that holds everything back from being a win. The screenplay is unfortunately less than impressive, with often cringe-worthy dialogue and what feels like a pastiche of ideas taken from other action/sci-fi pictures. Worst still, for the most part, the reasoning behind Henry moving from one location to the next isn’t convincing in the slightest. Admittedly, needing to formulate a plot that can capitalise on a variety of first-person scenarios is a hard predicament to be in, but it’s the film’s determination to keep things moving at breakneck speed that often results in lazily conceived developments.
This is by no means an emotionally layered drama or a picture that aims to kick-start a ponder-fest, but taking a few extra moments to take a breather and focus on expanding the plot and driving further characterisation would have been very beneficial. The issues comes down to the lack of dramatic tension in the overall narrative. While the various action-focused scenarios are appropriately wild and frenetic, you simply don’t have much reason to care, making Hardcore Henry more a series of impressive sequences than a well-structured film. Worst still, certain scenes border on tedium, kill after kill without much reasoning for us to cheer or feel the stakes.
Putting the screenplay and structure’s shortcoming aside, kudos are in order for Sharlto Copley. The South African actor puts in the work, playing a variety of different characters and clearly having fun while doing so. Apart from the film’s first-person signature, it’s Copley’s performance/s that makes this worth a watch.
Hardcore Henry is clearly targeted at a certain kind of audience. The film’s no-holds-barred violence and happily non-PC vibe might catch many off guard, while others may have a great time if they jump on that wavelength. Ultimately, this is about the experience of having an over-the-top action feature told in a first-person format, and with that, Hardcore Henry stands as an energetic, shamelessly in-your-face, technically remarkable experiment that will offer the right crowd some giddy entertainment.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10