“Hardcore Henry” is being sold as a revolutionary development in the action movie and the shape of things to come. Movie fans had better hope to hell not. This product, which was shot pretty much entirely with the ultra-small GoPro® cameras often used for extreme sports photography, isn’t a movie at all. It’s far more analogous to video game, only you don’t get to play it.
“Hardcore Henry” opens with Henry being awakened by a pretty blonde scientist (Haley Bennett) who wears short skirts and high heels with her lab coat, who tells Henry that she’s his wife and will always love him, even though he can’t remember her. Within moments of that, bad guys are shooting the place—which turns out to be an airborne laboratory—and Henry and Haley are on the run. They’re soon separated, and Henry is sent on a variety of short-term quests by Sharlto Copley (“District 9,” “The A-Team”) who keeps reappearing in a variety of Jim Carrey-like guises. The plot, such as it is, is a bit difficult to follow, and it’s a little mystifying who Henry would trust anyone after the first few minutes. But that’s part and parcel of the video game mentality dating back to Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers. Get the talisman, get an extra life. It all has something to do with a supervillain wannabe named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), your basic telekinetic albino, trying to create an army of cyborg super-soldiers. There’s nothing original about any of it, and what passes for a plot twist at the end is stolen from Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury.”
The threadbare script (by first-time director Ilya Naishuller) in fact is nothing but a flimsy skeleton to hold the “Hardcore Henry’s” action set pieces together. Naishuller presents the entire story entirely through the eyes of Henry, allegedly the main character, as he’s resurrected from the dead with no memory of his prior life. We recognize quickly that Henry’s a cyborg, with more mechanical parts than organic. That’s appropriate, since Henry isn’t a character at all—he’s a camera mount. Henry doesn’t talk, and only once do we even get a glimpse of his face in a mirror. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that a character, and a performance, can somehow be constructed without ever seeing or hearing that character, but Naishuller hasn’t solved that riddle here and it’s evident he isn’t trying.
At one point a poster for the 1947 movie “Lady in the Lake,” an earlier attempt to shoot a movie through the eyes of the hero, is glimpsed on screen. That movie failed commercially partly because the movie’s star, Robert Montgomery, was only shown on screen if he stepped in front of a mirror, even though his character narrated the movie. We get around that here because there’s no star. But there’s also nothing here to tell us what the character thinks until he scrawls one word on a wall in blood very late in the movie.
At every turn Henry is attacked by bad guys, and mayhem ensues. The camera is in constant motion. Bearing in mind that GoPro® is not a Steadicam system and there are no shock absorbers. There is lots of camera jiggle here, and it’s magnified on the big screen. Viewers prone to motion sickness will wish they’d taken their Dramamine. And while there is undeniable impact to this approach during gunfights, it’s a total bust during hand-to-hand combat sequences. Imagine a Bruce Lee movie where you can’t see the hero’s moves. Yup. Every bit as exciting as it sounds. When Henry jumps to or from moving vehicles, the impact of the stunt is completely lost as the scenery rushes by the camera in a blur. GoPro® cameras also tend to produce fisheye distortion to any objects close enough to the lens. Any shape with vertical lines, like door frames, bend to the outside. It isn’t realistic but it is annoying and distracting.
It bears noting that “Hardcore Henry” is graphically and gratuitously violent. That starts off with the opening credits, which features slow motion images of bludgeonings, stabbings and shootings. The on-screen violence is zombie movie level, and it’s presented with virtually no emotional context. It’s hard to decide which is more disturbing—the violence itself or the reaction of the audiences. At the screening attended by this writer, at least a couple of grown men giggled like teenagers at every act of violence depicted. If “Hardcore Henry” is indeed the future of the action movie, Heaven help us.