“The film couldn’t be much more like a beat-em-up video game if it tried”
If you are unsure of whether or not you have a tolerance or threshold when it comes to graphic violence, body-mutilation shown in explicit detail, a first-person POV camera, and video-game style beat-em-ups, you will know for sure by the end of Hardcore Henry, a mediocre, if subversive, action film that houses all of the above in excess. Shot entirely through the perspective of the titular character, the film puts the audience in the perspective of a violent, uncontrollable mercenary, revived from the dead by a scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett). Shortly after being revived, the two escape their airborne laboratory by way of an escape-pod and crashland on the streets of Moscow. Upon landing, Henry sees that everyone is out to get him by orders of a brutal warlord. After Estelle is kidnapped, Henry must find a way to be reunited with her, defeating everyone in his path who tries to get in his way of doing so.
Going off of that description alone, there is absolutely nothing game-changing about Hardcore Henry; its premise feels like that of a dated, forgotten video-game from the Nintendo Entertainment System-era where game plots were regulated to what would fit on a single screen in the form of written text. However, being that Hardcore Henry is shot through the perspective of Henry for the entire ninety-minute runtime, a barrage of things change. For one, we see every brutal detail of Henry’s combat, and we see everything that Henry sees in the moment, meaning that we only know as much as he does in real-time.
It’s an interesting new convention, especially for the tired genre of action films. I’d much rather deal with the headache-inducing videography of Hardcore Henry than have to sit through another miserable installment of Taken. Despite this, I would be lying if I said the film doesn’t become grating and drearily monotonous rather quickly. Unlike in Kingsman: The Secret Service, another horribly violent but devilishly good film, there is no slickness to the production, substance to the characters, or real method or moral to the madness. It’s simply carnal and unforgivably graphic, with Henry using everything from shotguns, pliers, barbed-wire, and his bare-fists to bludgeon or kill his enemies. The film couldn’t be much more like a beat-em-up video game if it tried, in look and overall feel; it’s fun for a while, but once you realize that the creators are doing their own version of “mashing buttons,” the entire story becomes hollow and uninteresting.
It also doesn’t help that the way the camera swings, while admirably authentic to the way the human head moves, especially in a panic or in sudden, abrupt ways when provoked or startled, is disorienting and nauseating. I’ve never really been bothered by even the worst of the videography in the “found footage” genre of films, but here, I was waving the white-flag far earlier than I ever expected to.
Hardcore Henry, even at barely ninety minutes long and with a strong and admirably nihilistic ending, is a muchness through and through; an interesting experiment bogged down by its tropes essentially being too successful. I’ve learned that a film like this that prides itself off of a sole gimmick (in this case, being a film shot entirely with the first-person perspective) can really be put to the test of being a great film if you’d still like it without its main gimmick. Taking the gimmick out of Hardcore Henry is like taking out the film as well.