‘Hardcore Henry’ is Like Watching 90 Minutes of Someone Else Playing Video Games

GameStop, Inc.

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Ever since Wolfenstein 3D, the first person shooter has been a cornerstone of the video game world. As a player, you step into the shoes of another character, one likely to take more damage than the hordes of anonymous baddies. Of course, the real pleasure of the first person shooters comes from its interactivity. Unlike some other forms of video games, it’s not exactly cinematic. That didn’t stop writer-director Ilya Naishuller from making his first person action epic, Hardcore Henry. After all these years, we finally have a movie that captures all the feeling of watching someone else play video games for 90 minutes. Hardcore Henry is at moments an interesting exercise in style, but its commitment to its video game roots undermines its threadbare story.

The film opens with what we’re later told is a flashback as a trio of young boys throw a toy against a wall in super slow motion. Unexpectedly, Tim Roth stares directly into the camera, speaking to every person in the theater, and says, “You little pussy.” This moments is followed by opening credits featuring close ups of ultraviolence in super slow motion. We haven’t even reached the film’s video game aesthetic, nor have we been given any sense of the film’s story, but the juvenile sensibilities of Hardcore Henry are abundantly clear from the get-go.

From there, we see Henry (played by the newcomer Player 1) as he wakes from some sort of medical procedure. Missing limbs and incapable of speaking, the disoriented Henry has robotic parts applied to his body, which are overseen by the young and sexy scientist Estelle (Haley Bennett). Before Henry can have his speech modular installed, Estelle tells him that she is his wife. Before Henry can get his voice implanted, the mysterious villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), an albino with telekinetic powers, breaks into the laboratory, forcing Henry and Estelle to escape. With the help of the mysterious stranger Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), Henry must pass through a number of levels with varying degrees of difficulty to defeat Akan and save the woman he is told he loves.

As a character, Henry is as fleshed out as any character in a first person shooter. That is to say not at all. But a video game can easily get around that issue because it allows the player to step into the shoes of the character. Without the interactivity, a movie needs to give the audience a reason to care about the character, and Hardcore Henry never give the audience a reason to care about anything. It certainly doesn’t help that the character is mute, simply not allowing any perspective to our point of view. Worst of all, it can’t skirt the fact that Henry is not going to die – if he does, there’s no movie. So all of this adds up to a stylistic choice that stymies the storytelling, not that I was expecting much in the way of story to begin with.

It’s even harder to get wrapped up in the first person violence with a story as needlessly convoluted as the one that Ilya Naishuller is telling. This is very much a style of filmmaking that could’ve benefited from a very simple, streamlined story: Here’s the good guy, here’s the bad guys, this is the MacGuffin – Go! Yet Hardcore Henry doesn’t do that. One question that the film takes its sweet time answering is why Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy can be repeatedly killed and return minutes later. I understand the video game element, but the film just waits and waits to give the audience any answers for far too long. It’s not until more than halfway through the movie that we’re given answers to a number of the film’s numerous plot questions, and even then nothing is imaginative or remotely satisfying.

There are a few moments of wit within Hardcore Henry. Copley’s Jimmy takes on a number of different personas, ranging from an English solider and a pothead biker. One of the more entertaining personas is the cokehead in a brothel. It’s a lively, manic, and funny performance, but it only makes up a small portion of his screen time. But it does lead to a rather entertaining action scene in a brothel set to music of the proto-punk garage band The Sonics and their classic rocker “Strychnine.” However, some of the other song choices aren’t as inspired, particularly using Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” during the climactic battle. I’m sorry, Mr. Naishuller, but that song is owned by Shaun of the Dead.

Hardcore Henry is a macho man’s movie in every regard. It’s pretty dumb, excessively violent, and only features a couple of women with names and/or lines to speak. Seriously, guys, don’t drag any dates to Hardcore Henry. This one is simply for the boys. Even then, those who get queasy on rollercoaster rides or virtual reality games might want to avoid the film for the dizzying effect of the first person action.

As a movie, Hardcore Henry is more an experiment than a coherent work of cinema. Despite its numerous flaws its stylistic approach will earn the film a cult following of video game aficionados. For those looking for a bit more from a movie, Ilya Naishuller’s film doesn’t offer anything besides its style. Hardcore Henry features multiple moments of point-of-view parkour along with headshots, punches, and stabbings. More than anything, Hardcore Henry confirms that the video game aesthetic isn’t able to be transposed to the cinema. It may be audacious and ambitious, but when the end credits finally began to roll, I wasn’t looking to hit continue.

Hardcore Henry
  • Overall Score
2.5

The Verdict

With its first person shooter aesthetic, Hardcore Henry captures the essence of its video game inspiration without telling a compelling story.

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