Hardcore Henry is a film destined to be defined by its gimmick. If anyone ever looks back it, they will no doubt refer to it as ‘that first person action movie’. It’s definitely been marketed that way and it’s not like any of the trailers are particularly keen to showcase the cast, the characters, or even what it’s actually about. It’s just ‘that first person action movie’, which to be fair is its unique selling point.
The film opens with the titular Henry awakening in a laboratory on-board an airship, apparently suffering from a case of amnesia. He meets a scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett), who explains to him that she has replaced his missing limbs with cybernetic ones, and that he will temporarily be unable to speak. She also reveals that she is his wife, although he has no recollection of their relationship. Before Henry can digest any of this information, the airship is assaulted by a group of mercenaries, led by a telekinetic psychopath named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky). The group are apparently intent on abducting Henry, however he is able to escape with his wife via an escape pod. The pair land in Moscow, whereupon they are attacked by more of Akan’s men. In the ensuing struggle, Estelle is kidnapped, prompting Henry to embark on a mission to save her. Along the way he encounters Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious figure who seems to know exactly what is going on and how Henry can survive. What follows is essentially a series of over-the-top car chases and gunfights, featuring cyborgs, tanks and gallons upon gallons of blood.
And yes, all of it is shown in first person. It’s a very difficult film to review because it is of such an acquired taste. From this description alone, you’ve probably already decided if you absolutely hate it or not, but for those who are interested, Hardcore Henry delivers on of its promise. Which is to say, there’s quality action and a lot of it.
In a similar fashion to The Raid, once this film starts, it never really settles back down. Luckily, thanks to both inventive choreography and a total lack of restraint, the action sequences never fail to impress. On a sheer technical level it’s pretty outstanding, and the POV camera is used to good effect in a variety of diverse situations. Did I also mention that it’s totally insane? With extreme bloody violence, a character that repeatedly dies and respawns and even a musical number, director Ilya Naishuller doesn’t really hold anything back. Which is either endearing or exhausting, depending on your mindset. For those who are open to it, it actually makes for quite a refreshing change from more conventional actions films.
Aside from the set-pieces, and a wonderfully eccentric performance from Sharlto Copley, there’s very little else to talk about. But that’s because nearly every second of the 90 minute runtime is devoted to its meticulously choreographed action. To criticise Hardcore Henry for under-delivering in the characterisation department is like saying ‘Airplane would be better if it delved into more complex themes’. In other words, it would be missing the point to a spectacular degree.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a film that more actively rejects characterisation; after all, its hero is literally a blank slate who cannot speak! That doesn’t mean that the film should be exempt from criticism, but it needs to at least be assessed on its own terms. Action films are certainly capable of great writing and storytelling, but Hardcore Henry has no such ambition. This is very much an unrelenting succession of heightened violence and utter ridiculousness, one that intentionally neglects to pay much attention to things like plot or subtlety.
Of course, Hardcore Henry is far from faultless, even when taken for what it is. Some of the acting is a little ropey, the first act is kind of weak, the villain isn’t great and a lot of the comedy is cringe-inducing. Also, if you are partial to motion sickness, then it’s definitely worth giving this one a pass, as it shows no mercy with its disorienting camera-work.
But if you can get past all of that, then the film achieves its central aim, and does exactly what it sets out to do; entertain.
Hardcore Henry (2016), directed by Ilya Naishuller, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment Film Distributors. Certificate 18.