Intriguing first-person experiment Hardcore Henry is more than its video-game structure, less than the groundbreaking action film it wants to be
Hardcore Henry STX Entertainment
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Screenplay: Ilya Naishuller and Will Stewart
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett and Tim Roth
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes
April 8, 2016
(out of four)
The first thing that comes to mind is a video game. We can go ahead and start with that, if only because it makes for a handy frame of reference for Hardcore Henry's visual aesthetic. The common refrain is that this is simply a movie version of a first-person shooter. Shot on GoPro cameras, the film is an entirely first-person experience, replete with an escalating series of tasks and locations, and a revolving arsenal of weapons with which our un-speaking proxy has to fight his way out.
The resemblance is obviously deliberate, and the interpretation of the movie as a product of video-game form is correct ... and yet overstated. Or at the very least oversimplified. It's not like video games invented the point-of-view shot, or even the wholesale narrative commitment to it. The language employed by director Ilya Naishuller doesn't require the guns, the chases, the stunts and the exposition-happy confidante - only the genre and the story do. (In a strange way it's the script that's more responsible for the gaming comparisons than the filmmaking.)
A lot of what gets inevitably lumped in with the supposed VG aesthetics is actually just common, easy visual logic - the same visual logic early first-person shooters were going for in the first place. That famous scene from Hitchcock's Spellbound (nicely referenced by Martin Scorsese during the climax of Shutter Island) is an early prototype for what is now a recognizable first-person-shooter image, but again, the composition is fundamentally a logical one. (Even if video games never existed, where else would a gun be placed in the frame of a point-of-view shot?)
That Hardcore Henry features narrative and structural elements that would be right at home in a video game makes the comparison stick, but its core idea is a simple one - a reasonable simulation of eyesight (with some logistical liberties) - that would be easily replicable with another type of story. Naishuller references at least one such example with a poster for Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake featuring prominently in one scene; Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and both versions of Maniac have also gone the POV route (as well as, I'm sure, others I've overlooked or am unfamiliar with).
This is still a largely untapped language - though how much tapping there can really be, given its built-in limitations, remains to be seen - and Hardcore Henry is just one application of it. And if it feels or behaves like a video game in some respects ... well, there's frankly nothing wrong with that, regardless of how one feels about this particular movie. I bring that up only because there's been a lingering narrative that this film's similarity to video games is an instant degradation in and of itself. But there's nothing wrong with one medium influencing the aesthetics of another. Any curious, impassioned cinephile should be interested in engaging every new variation on film grammar anyone has to offer; in seeing what movies can absorb from another creative medium. What works, what doesn't.
As far as this movie is concerned, it certainly found specific ways to take advantage of its video-game inspirations. As a narrative, it's perpetually reinventing itself, offering little setpieces that could almost stand on their own as miniature action shorts, only tangentially related to the bigger picture. We're never in one place for very long, but each one of those places has a specific reason for being - an experiment that Naishuller wants to pull off (and his action sequences do seem to get increasingly elaborate as the film goes on), a wrinkle he wants to introduce, a song-and-dance number he wants Sharlto Copley to break into all of a sudden.
Copley exemplifies the movie's regularly shifting status quo. He pops up in each scene as a different character ... or perhaps it's just a different version of the same character. All are named Jimmy, and all serve as a guide for Henry - sometimes he's a hobo on a bus, sometimes a coked-up libertine, or a hippie, or a nerd, or a hard-ass soldier in a ghillie suit - pushing him from place to place and objective to objective. Our point of view is a constant, but it's the only constant. That's more than I can say for a lot of movies.
And who is this Henry? He's the apparent guinea pig for a cybernetic experiment. His left arm and leg - both dismembered - have been replaced by bionic versions. So have his eyes and various other organs. He doesn't have his speech back yet*, and his memory only comes in fits and starts. To begin with, all he knows is that the beautiful scientist responsible for giving him new life is also his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), and that they're both about to be on the run from Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), basically an albino Magneto who has far more sinister ideas in mind for Estelle's cybernetic technology.
* Henry doesn't talk, but he does try to communicate with as much body language as he can, which includes some extremely vigorous head-nodding and head-shaking. So vigorous, in fact, that I wondered if it was the first time I had considered accusing a camera operator of over-acting.
It sets the stage for a charmingly strange attempt at hybridizing down-and-dirty shoot-em-ups with bonkers sci-fi impulses.
Having said all that, and having defended everything this movie is fundamentally trying to do, Hardcore Henry is only fitfully successful. It's an impressive accomplishment in many respects - it uses its point-of-view conceit with clarity and confidence and occasionally even wit, and the stuntwork is splendid. But it runs into a very specific problem. There's such concerted effort to make all of the action fit within Henry's sightlines that many of the action sequences end up coming across as overly mechanical. We lose the inherent musicality of great action. The fact that its climactic fight scene uses the same musical cue - Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" - as a memorably great sequence from Shaun of the Dead, and even a similar setup (an army of droogs encircling our main character instead of zombies) does not do the movie any favors.
I'm not sure how much life there is in a visual format designed to be so rigid, but I'm sure there are other filmmakers who would love the challenge, and who would find ways to fully take advantage of it. Naishuller doesn't quite pull it off, but he does do some nice things with the idea. There's real craft here. The attempt itself is worth admiring. The difficulty is worth appreciating, if not the final product.