I am an action movie junkie.
For years I have sought out the best action films I can find from all over the world. In recent years, the bar has been set incredibly high with the stunning martial arts in Ip Man, the wonderful over-the-top shoot outs of The Expendables 2, the crazy car chases of Fast 5, and of course there is the complete package of martial arts, guns, knives, and hard-hitting violence that is the Raid series. Ever since The Raid 2, I have been anxiously seeking my next fix, that next great action movie featuring hard-hitting stunts and great cinematography. There have been some fun ones. Somewhat recently, I was pleasantly surprised by London Has Fallen, not that I would call it a good movie, but it knew what it was and it was unabashedly a fun B-Movie type of action flick, only with a bigger budget, greater violence and a more talented cast…and yet as fun as it was, it didn’t quite fill that void. And then a new one came out: Hardcore Henry.
As I sat back in the comfy reclining theater chair watching the film’s opening scene as some young bullies smash a toy (what I assumed was a memory from the protagonist’s youth), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I knew it would be all in first person, but how well would the action come through? After all, we are so used to various film techniques that help enhance action scenes and make the chaos understandable. Would it all just be one jumbly first person Bourne Supremacy/Batman Begins-type of incoherent action scene after another? Would they play it tame or go all out with the violence?
Even in this frame from The Bourne Supremacy, it’s still impossible to decipher this fight.
“You little pussy.” Tim Roth’s opening line to the young protagonist clues us in to what we are about to experience. This is not for the weary. That line leads straight to the opening credits, the only segment not strictly from the point of view of the protagonist, hereby referred to as Henry. The credits consist of a montage of slow-motion close-up violence- a knife going into a throat, a bullet through a body, a brick across a skull…almost all things we see later in the film. Now the stage is set. We know exactly what we are in for – violence.
We pick up in present day as Henry wakes up in a vat of water, meeting his scientist wife as she attaches his robotic hand and foot. Henry’s memories are gone, and his wife is rather vague about what happened, all we know is he is now part machine, like a parkour Robocop. And then the shit hits the fan as the bleached Russian villain with telekinesis (because why not) enters the scene, killing scientists and sending Henry on the run with his wife, who is soon after captured by this mysterious 80s-style villain. From here, it is all about Henry trying to rescue his wife, all the while surviving the hordes of henchmen that are at the disposal of Weirdo McMindpower.
Part Bond villain, part X-Man, part Tommy Wiseau. “Oh hai, Henry!”
Aiding in his fight is the mysterious Jimmy, who randomly takes on multiple different looks and personalities throughout the film (soldier, hippie, spy, nerd, etc). He is a useful ally to Henry, showing up seemingly out of nowhere time and time again to help Henry in one way or another, each time with a different persona. He is played by the only other recognizable star – Sharlto Copley, who really goes all out performing the multiple incarnations of Jimmy. The other acting is spotty throughout, but luckily the more experienced Copley dominates a majority of the dialog, even if he is a bit over the top sometimes.
So how about the action? Well, it’s there and it gets pretty violent and intense in some parts, but ultimately the unique POV hinders as much as it helps. On one hand it makes us feel like we’re right in the middle of the action as Henry shoots, fights, and stabs his way through various bad guys. And on the other hand, we’re right in the middle of the action, so it’s sometimes hard to see anything but chaos when you’re that close. What could have been amazingly choreographed fight scenes are turned into a shaky-cam mess as we catch about half of what is going on, though it’s still more intelligible than the fights in Batman Begins. The positive of this is that anytime something fun, jaw-dropping, or wince-inducing happens, it feels like we are right there with it.
Sharlto Copley saves the day.
The thing about this movie is that it feels like a live-action video game. It is over-the-top, unrealistic, has weird characters, and has a level progression feeling to it as we go from one action set piece to another until we get to the final boss. This is not a film you go in to expecting to have a life-changing experience. It won’t make you think or create an intellectual conversation amongst its viewers. This is quite clearly an action film made for the sole purpose of giving the audience a healthy dose of violence and adrenaline and it ultimately succeeds pretty well at this- but it could have been better.
One big issue with this film is the breaks from the action completely kill any build up or tension. A film like The Raid wasn’t 100% action, but even during the breaks from the fighting we were kept engaged as the tension increased. We were worried for the characters and then before too long, it was on to the next set piece until we received the amazing climactic fight. Something a little lighter like The Expendables 2 had humor and light moments but the character interactions were great and the humor was usually on point, which made it work. For Hardcore Henry, it didn’t work quite as well.
Between the chases, fights, and shootouts we get some iffy humor from Jimmy, one song and dance number that was so ridiculous it was actually kind of funny, and mostly uninteresting exposition from Jimmy and the villain as they explain their different motives for us. Some of these things drag a bit too much, bringing the action to a halt before kick-starting it again a few minutes later. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing to break from the action, but to completely kill the momentum with sometimes boring/dragging sections of exposition takes away from the film, lessening its potential of being one of the best action films of the year.
A motorcycle with a minigun-mounted sidecar, because reasons.
It should be said that this movie is not for everyone. A healthy dose of the action is surprisingly coherent for being first-person but the camera is always moving and there are numerous times where those with even mild motion sickness would be in trouble as the camera shakes about wildly. Additionally, there are moments of graphic violence. These moments aren’t too frequent, but if you aren’t a fan of blood and gore, this probably isn’t for you. If you want a sample of what to expect, check out the movie’s writer/director Ilya Naishuller’s 2013 music video/short film, Biting Elbows: Bad Motherfucker, which gained him a lot of popularity. I came across it a few years back, finding it to be pretty fun and it also gives you a good idea of how the action works.
While on the subject of the filming style, it should be noted that despite the shaky-cam first-person perspective, this is nothing like a found footage film as I have seen some suggest. Found footage is similar in that it is shaky and is always from one of the character’s perspectives- whoever happens to be holding the camera and filming the boring woods/Godzilla-lite/trolls/zombies. They typically try to make the scenes long takes with minimal cuts, at least as minimal as you can tell, thanks to some movie magic. Hardcore Henry doesn’t try that, not even a little bit. Sure, we’re seeing things through his robotic eye but there are noticeable cuts throughout the film, even mid-action. There is also an actual soundtrack, something always missing from found footage.
Hardcore Henry is not the most violent, nor the most action-packed. It has plenty of fun action, though it is sometimes held back by the incoherent POV style. It is not serious and it doesn’t try to be, though sometimes it drags a bit too much for its own good. For those able to take the constant, sometimes frantic camera movements, this is a unique experience with some entertaining action set pieces. If it weren’t for the POV style, this would most likely be an average action flick, but being first-person sets it apart from other films, making this one that any action movie fans without motion sickness should check out. I sincerely hope to see more of these types of films in the future. With some minor improvements to story flow and finding a way to stabilize the camera a bit more, films like this could become a seriously fun subgenre in the action movie world.