Hardcore Henry appears to derive most of its inspiration from video games rather than its cinematic contemporaries, as it attempts to emulate what makes the most acclaimed gaming franchises successful: breakneck pacing, gleefully brutal violence, and the complete lack of a compelling narrative. Hardcore Henry feels an awful lot like something you should be controlling with a joystick rather than merely watching. The film may have achieved its aim of essentially being a video game that you watch instead of play but this ultimately hurts Hardcore Henry‘s cinematic merits.
The film’s unique selling point, or alternatively its gimmick, is that it takes place entirely in first person perspective. The lens through which the audience views the action is the titular Henry’s eyes. This shooting style has its merits; mainly, the action feels constantly chaotic and intense. However, there are drawbacks as well. It’s fair to say that if you can’t stomach shaky cam, then Hardcore Henry will leave you feeling nauseous. In an handful of scenes it can also be tough to keep track of what’s actually happening due to how close the camera is to the action. Though it’s unlikely to be a technique universally adopted by the action genre going forward, it works surprisingly well across the film’s brisk 90 minute running time and only rarely does it feel limiting.
With the level of violence the film offers, Hardcore Henry is quite an apt title. Director Ilya Naishuller infuses the film with a childish sense of chaos, that while undeniably entertaining does feel immature particularly towards the end. There’s definitely fun to be had in all the carnage, particularly when Henry goes one on one with a foe, but the second act does suffer from a lingering sense of the film simply going through the motions as each fight scene starts to bleed into the next often lacking distinction. Hardcore Henry doesn’t slowly ratchet up the intensity; instead, it kicks off already at level ten and attempts to maintain that throughout, resulting in the stakes never feeling raised.
For all its sadistic violence and adults only rating, Hardcore Henry is at its core a very silly movie. Between the ill paced opening taking place on a laboratory floating amongst the clouds to the super-powered main villain whose evil scheme revolves around creating an army of cyborg super solders, more often than not, you simply have to just go with whatever crazy wrinkle is throws at you. Setting the final fight scene, which is incidentally easily the film’s best moment, to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” is a stroke of genius however and is the one time where Hardcore Henry successfully marries its more serious ultra-violent tendencies with its childish immature side.
, Hardcore Henry is so busy cracking skulls and engaging in slick shoot outs that it forgets to actually tell a serviceable story or flesh out a single character. The main villain, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), is so comically evil that it would be funny if he wasn’t so lazily written. The same is true of Henry’s wife, portrayed by Haley Bennett, who is the archetypical damsel in distress that needs almost constant rescue, and her kidnapping makes up the backbone of the film as Henry attempts to track her down. Perhaps the one character who isn’t completely paper thin is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who appears in several different forms to assists Henry in his mission. His arc is most certainly cliché, but at least he has some form of development; whereas, the rest of the cast is so bland and forgettable that merely remembering their names midway through is a struggle.
In regards to Henry himself, there’s a strange disconnect between the lead character and the audience, largely because he doesn’t utter a single word throughout the whole film and you only catch glimpses of his appearance in reflective surfaces. This decision was clearly made in order to allow the audience to feel immersed in the film’s format, but Henry being such a blank slate does make it hard to care about his ultimate fate. This disconnect is only furthered by a few other odd decisions, such as the main cast all talking in English yet the film being set in Russia, and all the pedestrian that get caught up in the action shout Russian to one another. There’s a real lack of attention to detail which hurt the picture in small ways that eventually add up.
There isn’t really a plot on offer here. Instead, Hardcore Henry sprints from one action set piece to the next in the most direct way possible. While this does hold the film back initially, once you accept the film for what it is, a big dumb violence popcorn flick, it’s very possible to have a great time watching. The action is fluid, which is no small feat considering the visual format, and often so creatively brutal that you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. While it’s doesn’t stack up against similarly intense and violence movies such as The Raid, there’s definitely a method to the madness that consumes Hardcore Henry and those able to appreciate skillful editing and complex choreography will undoubtedly find plenty to love.
On a technical level, Hardcore Henry is a true achievement. The first-person perspective could have made the film borderline unwatchable but instead it gives the film a sense of immediacy and, coupled with the over the top violence, creates a unique action experience. Where the film falls apart is on just about every other level that films are judged. Between the flatter-than-week-old soda characters and the patchwork narrative, it quickly becomes clear that Hardcore Henry has nothing to offer beside intense and brutal action sequences. Hardcore Henry is the cinematic equivalent of junk food: it’s flashy and enjoyable, but ultimately hollow.