It’s most definitely not for the faint of heart, nor the most sensitive of souls. But if you’re ready to subject yourself to the most balls-out, bonkers action ride of the year—of the last few years and beyond, since there’s never been anything quite this ambitious since the first The Raid, or as deliberately nausea-inducing since Blair Witch—then you are precisely the maniac for whom the flashy, gory first-person action-thriller Hardcore Henry was made.
Just remember the warning director Ilya Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) issued at the film’s SXSW debut this week: The first few rows comprise the “splash zone” for those with low tolerance for shaky handheld and extreme gore. Vomit at your own peril. Barf bags not included.
Queasy-making or not, there’s something pure and beautiful in the unadulterated mayhem that erupts and never lets up in Naishuller’s first feature, a virtuoso exercise in gaming-influenced action storytelling that skirts by on a lot of bloodshed and the barest of plots. Not that it really needs one. The gimmick alone is a neat trick of forced subjectivity, practical stunts, CG-aided execution, and blood-splattering headshots. Unfolding in real time, the entire film is presented from its protagonist’s point of view. His name, you learn when he awakes in a laboratory at the start of the film, is Henry. And Henry is a bad motherfucker.
You see what Henry sees. You hear what he hears. You feel your own pulse racing as he fights his way through blazingly brutal battles in the streets, through abandoned buildings, in the jungle. It’s the opposite of an out-of-body experience; the viewer is transported into the body and brain of the protagonist. One who, in this case, happens to have a very particular set of skills. (Hint: It ain’t talking.)
Hardcore Henry opens as Henry wakes up, strapped to an operating table. He takes in the disorienting ascetic details of a futuristic lab, glimpsing his own missing limbs as a beautiful blond scientist named Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs him that he has amnesia, and that she’s his wife. She patches him up, making him bionic and good as new—well, except for the voice box he still needs installed.
But before the final touches can be made on Henry’s regenerated body, bedlam strikes in the form of an albino-haired villain named Akan who blasts his way in, intent on co-opting the program’s army of cybernetic soldiers. Akan possesses unexplained telekinetic powers and a nefarious plan for world domination. Specifics of said plan? Eh, who needs ’em. The kook takes Estelle prisoner, giving Henry the only motivation he really needs in terms anyone who’s ever played a video game or watched an action movie can decipher: Save the princess from the castle (OK, corporate skyscraper) she’s imprisoned in.
As in the first-person shooter vidgames that clearly inspired Naishuller, information about key characters and Henry’s identity are doled out in increments between action sequences. While we know he’s heading toward an epic showdown with the big boss, the whys and hows of what propels Henry toward that violent conclusion take a while to materialize into view.
Henry’s inability to speak makes him even more passive as he navigates his way through the mean streets of Moscow, trying to piece together clues to his past and figure out how he can save his beloved wife from Akan’s clutches. Just as he gains a new piece of the puzzle, along comes some new threat, like a guy wielding a flamethrower, to torch his cover to the ground and force Henry further along toward the next scene.
Helping disseminate key clues along the way is District 9’s Sharlto Copley, who’s never been given a platform quite like this to explore his comedic range. There’s a don’t-think-too-hard-about-it sci-fi explanation for exactly how he pops up every now and then to offer Henry and the audience crucial bits of exposition and guidance—the living (and dying, and living again) embodiment of a helpful NPC.
Sharlto Copley as a suave James Bond type? Check. Sharlto Copley as a dope fiend-hippie warrior? Check. Sharlto Copley singing his way through “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in one of the more bizarre musical numbers ever shoved into an R-rated action flick? You know it’s got that, too.
But the undeniable star of Hardcore Henry isn’t really a performance you see as much as it is the experience of living in Henry’s skin as he blasts, stabs, slices, and slowly deduces his way along, hurtling toward a serviceable vengeance quest on par with the simple, silent antiheroes of ’70s revenge shoot ’em up cinema. What’s more enviable than the cool confidence with which Naishuller achieves his seamless action spectacle is how he pulled it off in the first place, by outfitting a team of gifted stunt pros with wide-angle GoPros and letting them loose to play with an arsenal of weaponry, close-combat choreography, and a winking sense of humor.
The nonstop adrenaline rush starts in the lab—which turns out to be airborne, because of course—but kicks into high gear as Henry and Estelle plunge to safety in a claustrophobic escape pod hurtling toward Earth. It crash-lands on the asphalt of an overpass that’s overrun with heavily armed baddies within seconds, initiating a new assault before anyone has a chance to catch their breath. And so goes the entirety of Hardcore Henry, which careens through its 90-minute runtime at a breakneck pace from one meticulously choreographed set piece to the next.
The film knows its target viewer is the kind of person who’s gone down time-suck rabbit holes of YouTube parkour videos, yearning to know what it feels like to freerun your way through a cemented urban playground pretending you’re a superhuman badass in peak physical form—minus the inconvenience of making any actual physical effort.
Hardcore Henry also hopes, perhaps, that you’ll overlook its paper-thin plot and cartoonish characters and join it in celebrating the art of the kill. One rooftop moment is reminiscent of Neo tangling with a hundred Agent Smiths—only here Henry dispatches his army of bioengineered zombie soldiers by going on a shanking spree, as an electro score ratchets up the tension. In another, the resourceful Henry demonstrates an unconventional use for pliers as he makes his way through an apartment building, racking up a startling body count along the way.
And if that action hero POV doesn’t make for enough male fantasy wish fulfillment, there are Hardcore Henry’s ladies. They cover a generous swath of sexy womankind, ranging from duplicitous to deadly to the nameless, naked, actual whores that barely bat an eyelash when their underground bordello turns into a war zone. To be fair, Hardcore Henry’s white-haired villain is not a creature of much dimension himself. The film will earn no bonus points for its gender progressivism, and that goes both ways. It’s telling enough that human emotion is the ultimate crippling weakness used against our macho man hero.
Some will compare the first-person aesthetic of Hardcore Henry to the first-person shooter games of the ’90s-’00s-’10s it constantly references, but Henry feels more like a bridge to the future of gaming and its inevitable convergence with the movies: virtual reality cinema. One can easily imagine a scenario in which moviegoers in a theater watch Hardcore Henry with VR gadgets strapped to their faces, their arms and legs flailing as they dodge bullets. That future might be a mindlessly fun roller coaster ride, and it may cut down on the need for barf bags in the aisles. But it also begs more from the kinds of video games and stories we translate into cinema-plus experiences. If this is hardcore, what will the brave new future look like?