“Hardcore Henry” may function fundamentally on an outright gimmick, but, as with most gimmicks, the first time around it’s still a novelty. Therefore, it exudes a freshness and a level of amusement that other projects have not yet had the opportunity to destroy by dragging the technique into exhaustion. Fortunately, the filmmakers here (led by writer/director Ilya Naishuller) were also wise enough to include far more material and creativity than could have been expected from the very first movie shot entirely in the first-person perspective.
Henry awakens in a robotics workshop with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A young scientist appears and identifies herself as Estelle (Haley Bennett), explaining that she is Henry’s wife. After outfitting the groggy man with a cybernetic hand and foot, Estelle informs Henry that she loves him and will assist in his recovery. When the lab is attacked by maniacal competitor Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), Henry and Estelle narrowly escape, only to be apprehended shortly after by an arsenal of the madman’s mercenaries. Henry manages to flee with the aid of a churlish hooligan calling himself “Uncle Jimmy” (Sharlto Copley), paving the way for the two to devise a plot to recharge Henry’s faltering cyborg implants and rescue Estelle from Akan’s diabolical clutches.
From the opening credits sequence, featuring a slow-motion brick to the head, knife to the throat, and bullet to the eye (a 21st century take, perhaps, on the eyeball-slicing affront of “Un chien andalou”), it’s clear that “Hardcore Henry” will honor its title ardently. What is not as apparent is the effect of the camerawork, which tries to ease the audience into the dizzying frenzy of the unique viewpoint soon to be experienced. Once it takes hold, however, the look crisscrosses from nauseating to disorienting to downright confusing – and altogether singular.
There are essentially no slow points; this is a nonstop action movie intent on redefining the use of the adjective “nonstop” to describe action movies. But instead of embracing the breakneck pacing and the relentless violence alone, the film recognizes another powerful additive: humor. Transcending the mere innovation of the main photographing method, “Hardcore Henry” generates plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Many are due to the extremeness of the bloodshed, but a large amount can be attributed to Copley, who provides comic relief in his dialogue as well as in his character’s actions, which are far more inspired than anyone might have guessed. There’s a twisted genius at work in the screenplay, shaping the boilerplate elements of shoot-‘em-up video games into wholly cinematic hilariousness.
It’s impossible not to make a comparison to first-person stealth/shooter video games and the storylines and components that frequent them – especially with the sexy scientist in a short skirt and lab coat, the heavy sci-fi themes that aren’t usually found anywhere but in “Metal Gear Solid”-type actioners, the behind-the-scenes agent always ready to govern (through voiceover) the next mission, the shift in music to initiate a fight sequence, or the continual upgrading of weapons to fend off waves of enemy troops. The irony here is that, while video games attempt more and more to emulate movies (through music, scripts, voice actors, opening and closing credits, graphics, and general realism, to name a few), this movie can’t help but look and feel like someone else is playing a video game while viewers sit back and watch. But the entertainment level is extraordinarily high, injecting a bit of everything from both the video game world and the action movie world, with outrageous stunts (and/or computer graphics, considering the approximately eight stunt people credited for “Hardcore Henry,” versus the 150 for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” to which a likening can be drawn based on unexpected inventiveness) and camerawork, for which the choreography and logistics are utterly mind-boggling. “Hardcore Henry” possesses a distinct, alternately facetious and clever attitude (reminiscent at times of the “Crank” movies) that hasn’t been seen in quite a while. The shame is that, if it’s successful at the box office, the first-person device might be repeated until the brilliance of this initial use is all but forgotten.