“Hardcore Henry” isn’t the first movie to be shot entirely from a first-person perspective, but it is the first action movie to utilize the gimmick. While it’s a little surprising that it hasn’t been attempted before in today’s YouTube generation, that’s likely because there was no one crazy enough to try it. Enter Ilya Naishuller, the Russian filmmaker behind the viral POV music videos for his indie rock band Biting Elbows. Though even Naishuller has admitted that he was skeptical about whether a full-length feature using this technique could work, he deserves kudos for delivering a film that’s exactly as advertised. “Hardcore Henry” is definitely hardcore – an adrenaline-fueled, ultra-violent, one-of-a-kind experience that stands as the closest thing to a live-action video game that you’ll ever see. Too bad it’s not any good.
The movie places the audience in the title role of Henry, a man who’s just been resurrected from the dead by a scientist claiming to be his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett). Henry has lost his memory and ability to speak, and can only look on as he’s outfitted with a number of robotic enhancements. But before Estelle is able to activate Henry’s voice module, the lab is attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a telekinetic albino psychopath with villainous plans to use the technology inside Henry’s cybernetic body to build an army of super soldiers. Henry manages to escape, but Estelle is kidnapped in the process, so he teams up with a mysterious ally named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) – who has a habit of getting himself killed and then respawning as one of his many clones – to rescue her and stop Akan’s plan for world domination. In other words, the plot of every video game ever made. (Okay, not really.)
The setup is way more complex than it needs to be for a film that spends the next 80 minutes pretty much ignoring all logic. “Hardcore Henry” takes the phrase “style over substance” to dizzying new heights (quite literally if you’re not a fan of shaky cam) with a blood-soaked buffet of non-stop action filled with gun fights, hand-to-hand combat, parkour-inspired chase scenes and even a confrontation with a tank. Henry moves from one scene to the next like he’s clearing levels to reach the final boss, and although there are some great action beats throughout – including a sequence where he mows down enemies with a Gatling gun while riding in a motorcycle sidecar – after about an hour of watching Henry punch, kick and shoot his way through a seemingly never-ending stream of henchmen, it begins to wear you down. A movie with this much action shouldn’t be boring, but most of it is exhausting rather than exhilarating.
Though “Hardcore Henry” exhibits an impressive commitment to its gimmick, once you peel away the layers of craftsmanship required to pull off such a trick, you’re left with a pretty awful B-movie underneath. Naishuller does his best to keep things fresh with some fantastic stunts and an array of creative kills, but the rest of the film is so damn cheesy (from the laughably bad villain, to Copley’s obnoxious sidekick, to the cringeworthy dialogue) that it doesn’t really matter whether Naishuller is in on the joke or not. There’s no denying that “Hardcore Henry” is an innovative piece of filmmaking, but for a movie that began life as a music video, it probably should have remained that way.