Published Apr 08, 2016Ilya Naishuller's Hardcore Henry is crude, rude and juvenile — and it might also be one of the smartest films released this year. A stealth-attack treatise on cyborg theory, video games and our relationship to technology, this first-person perspective actioner turned heads and churned stomachs last year at TIFF, picking up the People's Choice Midnight Madness award amid reports of walkouts thanks to its disorienting camera work and extreme violence.
The movie was known simply as Hardcore back then, and along with a title change, Naishuller's also given the visual effects and sound mix an extra boost ahead of its theatrical release. Hardcore Henry works best as an adrenaline rush of the highest order, a punk rock genre exercise with plenty on its mind. The film makes a compelling argument for why video games should be a part of any media diet, and quite literally allows us to experience the thrill of slipping into someone else's skin.
After a gruesomely violent title sequence, Hardcore Henry lets the audience in on its spectator-as-user interface, putting us inside the head of the titular Henry. Naishuller employs a team of stunt performers to "play" the silent cyborg, strapping them with GoPro cameras and setting them loose. Since we never hear Henry speak, there's no single actor playing our hero, a sly comment that soon becomes a running gag on the anonymity of users and avatars in online gaming.
After a daring escape from an aircraft research station, Henry's wife Estelle is kidnapped by a powerful psychic warlord, and we're off and running (quite literally). Henry teams up with a mercenary named Jimmy, in a scenery-chewing performance from Sharlto Copley, playing the biggest ham of his career. While Jimmy is quickly disposed of in a violent car chase, he keeps reappearing in sequence after sequence, each time playing a new variation on his loose-cannon persona. Part of the fun of Hardcore Henry is trying to figure out where the film is going, as Naishuller plays intentionally vague in the early proceedings, building a truly immersive experience. While the first-person perspective action is disorienting at first, Naishuller brings a surprising amount of visual coherence to the blocking and geography of the fight sequences, building to moments that cause your stomach to drop as Henry dives and dodges through jaw-dropping stunts.
First-person perspective movies are nothing new (you can go back to 1947's Lady in the Lake for the first marketed example), and part of the appeal of cinema is its inherently immersive aspects, even without camera trickery. Hardcore Henry is deceptively intelligent, recognizing these limitations and creating a visual language that is based not just on video games, but the proliferation of videos online made with GoPro cameras that capture impossible stunts, as well as ruminating on modern surveillance technology.
The film's technical conceit works because it quite literally makes its subtext the text, rendering literal notions of programmed memories and virtual extensions of the body online. Without revealing too many of the gradually unfolding surprises, there's a reason for all the cartoonish violence and deplorable behaviour, building to a near-hallucinatory conclusion of sound, colour and fury, along with a new all-time best use of Queen's music in movie history (sorry, Shaun of the Dead). At its most abstract, the film evokes the new experimental work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, who made the extreme GoPro film Leviathan, playing with our perspective as digital spectators, along with notions of duration and time.
Hardcore Henry does rely a little too strongly on the "grab the magical McGuffin, bring it here, do the thing" structure of video games in its second act, burying its emphasis on forward momentum before regaining focus in the finale. But perhaps that's intentional on Naishuller's part, as the film embodies a certain kind of innocence to its moral bankruptcy, a movie that feels intentionally designed to appeal to our inner 13-year-olds while ultimately being sort of harmless.
While many complained about the post-TIFF title change, the silent Hardcore Henry (a playful alliteration of a word game if there's ever been one) has an innate childlike quality, a blank slate that allows us to project our own user desires on screen. Hardcore Henry is sci-fi done right, a smart action film that stands alongside some of the best films of the year.