I was honestly shocked to see that this movie would be playing in my local theater. Typically, it only screens mainstream films where the main attraction is the attractiveness of the stars, the car chases and/or the promise of insufferable comedy (romantic or otherwise). It rarely plays films where the attraction is, *gasp*, the fact that the movie itself has been made in an original and interesting way – especially not if it’s a Russian-American indie film such as Hardcore Henry (or just Hardcore, if you will).
Hardcore Henry is known for having been shot almost entirely through the first-person perspective of its cyborg protagonist (imagine RoboCop but with the remainder of the film having the same p.o.v as in Murphy’s rebirth scene). While I have definitely seen something similar done in movies like Enter the Void, this might be the first film that plays like a first-person shooter game. Some will love this decision more than others, but I doubt anyone will love this movie more than me.
Much like John Dies at the End, not only is this a contender for the title of “the kind of movie Deadpool should have been” but it is so amazingly unpredictable in its insane plot and humour that I hesitate to give too many details away. Basically, though, it concerns a man named Henry who gets rebuilt into a nigh indestructible machine-man by an at first unspecified organization. The first being he sees with his new cybernetic eyes is his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett), whom he has no memories of, and later a fiendish albino named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who storms the laboratory where Henry’s (re)born and kills several researchers with his extraordinary, albeit unexplained powers. We know very little of Akan in general, which is not a flaw on the film’s part since we only need to know as much as the protagonist understands as the world unfolds before him.
Managing to escape, a disoriented Henry then fights his way through both the cities and forests of Russia, as Akan’s mercenaries chase after him and he runs into a mysterious and eccentric stranger played by Sharlto Copley. Now, I refuse to reveal any details about the nature of Copley’s character in this film, though I must say this: I’ve always thought that Copley is a resplendent actor with great range and lots of talent, and his role in this movie is essentially one giant example of that! He is more of a blast to watch than ever and I will leave it there. I advice you to see everything else for yourself.
The movie was produced by Timur Bekmambetov of Night Watch fame and its director is the frontman of Biting Elbows, a Russian rock band whose music videos largely served as the film’s inspiration. “Stampede” and “Bad Motherfucker” are tunes that come to mind.
The character of Henry never speaks and his face is never shown (properly) throughout the film; allowing his “actor” to be a series of different stuntmen and camera operators rather than one singular dude. This (1) helps the audience project onto him easier and feel more immersed in the action as a result, and also (2) fits neatly into the love letter to video games that the makers of this movie are writing – their heroes are often silent. I went to see it with dad and my two brothers, who are gaming savvier than I and continuously helped me appreciate some of the smarter references.
As for the first-person view, I found it to be extremely effective. It made the action sequences all the more intense – on top being achieved mostly through practical effects and breathtaking stunt work – and it successfully created the feeling that you were a part of the ongoing violence. It is disorienting at times but aptly so, not only due to the way it’s edited.
Early on, I was afraid that all the cuts present in the film would be distracting due to how close I felt to the action as a viewer and wondered if a film with almost none, à la Birdman, would have worked better. In other first-person films, we usually see the character’s viewpoint in real-time and without cuts, which is understandable since the human ocular system has no editor. However, not only were some of them cleverly disguised as glitches and distortions in Henry’s eyes, but the cuts actually made the film’s pacing more action movie-appropriate. Longer shots would have worked in a first-person movie like the aforementioned Enter the Void, which was a brooding and horrifying piece. It didn’t have a coked-up Sharlto Copley dancing around in his panties is what I’m saying.
Hardcore Henry is, in closing, a technical masterwork and an absolute riot all the way through! It’s wickedly hilarious, its absurd music choices only make it better, the violence and gore is simply beautiful, its sheer madness is as captivating as its cinematography and action, the action itself is creative, the stunts are above criticism, the villain is fittingly hammy, and the lackluster digital effects are only a minor nuisance in a film that otherwise invokes nothing but fond memories as I’m finishing this review. Also, and I won’t elaborate more than I need, there is a certain cliché I despise that was played totally straight in the Deadpool movie even though it shouldn’t have been. In this film, the cliché gets subverted and turned into one of its plot twists. I believe I’ve said enough.
And to boot, what few flaws Hardcore does have are either done with self-awareness to match the film’s comedic tone and the homages to gaming (the stock sound effects irritated me at first until I realized that I was meant to recall the video games I’ve heard them in), or they’re far too small for me to take any points off of my final rating, which is 5/5. It has been a long time since I’ve felt justified in typing out that classic phrase: “It’s more than a movie, it’s an entire experience”.