Hardcore Henry is a hoot.
The first action movie shot entirely from the first person, it's a cheap, crazy, throw-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-at the-wall-along-with-bags-of-blood movie that's out to be as fun as possible.
You are Henry. You wake up to wake up to find your body rebuilt with nearly-indestructible cyborg parts and a woman claiming to be your wife trying to help you escape from an evil tycoon and his private army who wants you for nefarious ends. You escape but your wife is captured, and you have to fight your way across Moscow to get your memories back and rescue her.
It was shot entirely in the first person on a GoPro – well, more than one GoPro. They made a helmet rig that the camera/actor/parkour athlete wore on his head, and Henry was played at about thirteen stuntmen wearing the rig. The story unfolds more or less in real time but it hides its cuts and jumps ahead in time through visual glitches in the hero's visual implant or when he's knocked out.
There's something very Russian in the way this movie treats gleeful, bloody violence as comedy. It's also full of contemporary Russian references and attitudes like a fight scene on a highway overpass that's almost like the videos of Russian road-rage that are regularly posted on YouTube. There's also the way it takes for granted that cops are corrupt, even murderously so, and the comic decadence of an expensive brothel, or abandoned, dystopian apartment buildings. Moscow and its outskirts are pretty much characters in the story. The sadistically evil villain Akan is also a Russian take on a Marvel-style supervillain with a massive private army. This is an oligarch with psychic powers – because why not? – cartoonishly sadistic and obnoxious villain you love to hate and look forward to murdering horribly in the final boss fight. He's the one-percenter as baddie, smug in his wealth and power, toying with Henry the downtrodden nobody who gets to wreck underdog revenge, fighting through all the resources a rich bad man can possibly throw at a working-class hero on a Dante-esque odyssey to rescue his wife.
This movie also uses Shalto Copley perfectly. He's hilarious playing several different versions of the same character who keeps getting killed and popping up again with a new personality. It made me realise that Copley is great as a comic actor, but dreadful as a dramatic actor, as when he gets stuck having to play angsty and po-faced in the TV version of Brian Michael Bendis' POWERS.
The movie manages to give its silent hero some nuance even though you don't hear him and never see what he looks like. His being a videogame cipher with all the characteristics – starting the story with no memories of his past, having no voice – comes to make some sense. If character is action, then Henry is you if you were a videogame hero, only killing the bad guys and making an effort to avoid collateral damage or hurting innocent bystanders, which is more than can be said for Zack Snyder's Batman or Superman.
It's the first movie that fully captures the feel of a videogame. It's full of visual and action references to Halo, Half-Life and Call of Duty, lurching from one insane setpiece to the next and just barely making sense. It's the first movie where I can imagine gamers watching this and wishing they could play it.
Director Ilya Naishuller was inspired to make Hardcore Henry after directing a two-part first-person action short as a rock video for his band Biting Elbows and encouraged by action director Timur Bekmambetov, who came onboard as producer. They raised the rest of the budget through Indiegogo and probably some investment and finishing funds from distribution STX Entertainment and the Chinese media conglomerate Hua YI.
First-person action movies are the latest gimmick, the same way found footage horror movies had been before. I don't know how long this trend will last, since many viewers will complain or nausea and motion sickness, especially the closer you sit to the screen in the cinema. Here's some advice: sit at least fifteen or twenty rows from the front. The further back you sit from the screen, the less chance you have of getting motion sickness. This is not a movie you want to sit close to the screen for. The SyFy Channel already has a first-person zombie outbreak thriller called Pandemic, which does not have very good reviews and uses its first-person dynamic rather badly. There are probably going to be quite a few cheap and terrible first-person thrillers in production right now, but they're generally ripping off Hardcore Henry. This may be a trend we'll be relieved to see the back of.
Until then, Hardcore Henry would make a perfect double bill with Deadpool, the only two R-rated comedy action movies with splattery violence.
The question then, is what next for the 100% POV genre? Hardcore Henry has pretty much taken that as far as it can go as an action film, especially as far as the nausea-inducing shakycam goes. Perhaps a sequel or a follow-up might go the other route along the same principle, except this time, it's all in one location, with one camera, in one take, but the camera doesn't move. Everyone and everything else does, including the location changing around the unmoving camera. The camera doesn't move, but the world does. We, the audience with the camera as our proxy, are unmoving but watching the world change and move and fall away from us.
Or the next step for the 100% POV film might be not an action movie, but a drama, like say a romance, a love story with no shaky cam. A story about falling in love, falling apart, breaking up, then getting together again. And in two versions: one from each lover's point of view. Make it two movies. Create two complementary narrative and emotional experiences where the audience learns to be inside the heads of both sides of a relationship. Movies are empathy machines after all. We have laughter and hero empowerment in Hardcore Henry, let's see what happens if you give put us in the heads of people falling in and out of love and in again next.
Hardcore Henry is now in cinemas in the US.
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