Movie Review : Hardcore Henry (2015)
The majority of video game enthusiasts always caressed the dream of seeing Hollywood embrace their favorite medium like it did with comic books a decade ago. It's been a complete disaster, so far. Uwe Boll and condescending studio executives notwithstanding, movies and video games have been a mediocre fit so far and latest adaptation Assassin's Creed didn't do anything to help us believe a successful adaptation will someday happen. What if we had it all wrong, though? What if movies could learn a thing or two from video games? It's with that idea in mind that Ilya Naishuller created Hardcore Henry and got Timur Bekmambetov of all people to sign off on it. The mere idea of filming a movie like a first-person shooter could've went horribly wrong, but the result is...eh, kind of cool?
Hardcore Henry is the story of a man waking up in a laboratory, seemingly brought back from the dead by his scientist wife Estelle (Haley Bennett). It takes about five minutes before everything starts exploding and a gruesome-looking albino man with telekinetic powers named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) invades her laboratory and chases them right into the mean streets of Moscow. Henry is some kind of super cybersoldier prototype Akan is looking to replicate in order to create an army. Fortunately, he is rescued by a strange man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who keeps dying and respawning like a video game character every couple hours. He provides Henry with crucial information regarding his predicament and urges him to destroy Akan once and for all.
MAJOR bloodshed ensues.
Now, it would be easy to dismiss Hardcore Henry for being one of these style-over-substance movies. I would argue that its style IS its substance. Because its script is somewhat thin: man wakes up from a coma with amnesia and superpowers/man's wife is kidnapped before his very eyes/man butchers his way back to aforementioned wife and learns the truth about his predicament/the end. There's nothing original about that. It sounds like every movie made between 1991 and 1998. The only interesting variable about Hardcore Henry is the enigmatic Jimmy, owner of multiple bodies, who literally lives his life like it's an exciting video game. He's a clever nod to the movie's inspiration and a statement on posthuman ethics: life is an exciting rollercoaster ride when it doesn't need protecting. Disposable bodies are a passport to a life of murderous tourism and render violence and trauma almost meaningless to the owner. Jimmy is a 14 year-old video game player trapped in a movie based on video game logic.
Jimmy notwithstanding, the appeal of Hardcore Henry lies in its execution rather than its storyline. Movies have tried to harness the first person point of view since their inception and have never been very successful at it. The genius of Hardcore Henry is that it doesn't try to tell a conventional narrative. It's very much a live-action video game that doesn't require your direct involvement. Sure, the aesthetics can be nauseating, which you can blame on the oddly organic filming process, but there was something inherently satisfying in watching a movie delivered in real-time where you're fed information at the same pace than the protagonist. It's dynamic, different, it's a challenge to the senses in itself. A lot of Hardcore Henry consists in senseless killing sprees, but the redeeming value of that is there's a sense of danger and unpredictability to them. It's going to happen, but you never know when and how and it's where Ilya Naishuller truly got creative.
Hardcore Henry has its obvious limitations, but I can't say it was a disaster. I can understand how someone unfamiliar with video games with hate this movie with passion, but it kind of life up to most first-person shooters I've played. It also made me somewhat nostalgic for the era of live-action video games which I once embraced like their were the be-all-end-all of entertainment. Hardcore Henry is not exactly elating of though-provoking, but I believe it's one of the most functional marriage between video games and cinema aesthetics. It's not QUITE fully functional yet, but it's almost there. I've enjoyed it from a polite distance in my living room, yet I can imagine it being a much more gripping experience in theater. Hardcore Henry has a thin script, lots of murder, but it has that unconventional delivery that makes video games great and thoroughly difficult to adapt to cinema. It doesn't quite beats the odds, but it comes closer than any other video game-based movies.