Rated R for for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use.
Running time: 95 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Bring Dramamine if you’re planning on seeing “Hardcore Henry.” And do NOT meet up with friends for drinks beforehand.
This extra-violent extravaganza of first-person action filmmaking is not for the faint of heart, and it surely is not for anyone under age 17. (Your tweens and teens may think it looks fun, or dope, or whatever the kids say these days with their rock ‘n’ roll music. Say no. This is a very hard R.) At the same time, it’s probably also not for grown-ass people like yours truly. It is pummeling. It is punishing. It is nauseating and headache-inducing. I was seriously discombobulated walking back to my car afterward and was in a pissed-off mood the rest of the night. Maybe that’s the point.
But if you’re in the sweet spot of its target viewing audience — video game enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, and more than likely male — then “Hardcore Henry” is for you. Now get off my lawn.
Writer-director Ilya Naishuller, a 29-year-old Russian who’s also the lead singer of the punk band Biting Elbows, has come up with an inventive premise and an intriguing mystery that grab your attention — at least for the first 20 minutes or so. But the film’s relentless, repetitive violence quickly grows numbing and even boring — which, theoretically, is not what you’re looking to achieve in a high-octane action flick.
“Hardcore Henry” is predicated on a gimmick — albeit, a clever gimmick — but there’s not much more to the movie than that. Naishuller attached GoPro cameras to a bunch of stuntmen to create the sensation that we are experiencing everything our protagonist, Henry, experiences: all the running, jumping, climbing, chasing, crashing, fighting, shooting and killing. We never see his face and we don’t even hear his voice because he doesn’t have one. We are learning everything right alongside him. We are essentially watching someone play a first-person shooter video game on a giant movie screen.
The film begins with Henry waking up in a lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A beautiful, blonde scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is attaching high-tech prosthetic limbs to his battered, tatted body — and she says she’s his wife. But he quickly realizes he’s in danger and must go on the run throughout Moscow from the various bad guys who are after him, including a diabolical albino with telekinetic powers (Danila Kozlovsky) and his army of cyborg henchmen. Luckily for Henry, though, he’s a killing machine — part man, part science experiment — which makes the vast majority of “Hardcore Henry” a non-stop bloodbath.
The curiosity of who he is, how he got in this condition and what the crazy bad guy wants is compelling for a little while. But — spoiler! — the movie never answers these questions in a way that’s even vaguely satisfying. The story is totally subordinate to the spectacle. It is the McGuffin. The dizzying visuals are all that matter — but they’re not enough to make us care.
Henry also visits a Russian brothel where dozens of women are dressed (or, rather, undressed) identically in nothing but black panties and platinum blonde wigs. It screams of misogyny, but it’s probably also yet another intentional element in recreating the video game sensation. Various characters do massive amounts of drugs, which I guess is supposed to be edgy. Oh yes, and there’s a ton of language, but that seems almost quaint compared to the other hardcore activities going on here.
One bright spot is Sharlto Copley’s performance as an odd dude named Jimmy, who shows up along the way in various disguises and voices to give Henry clues as to where he needs to go and what he needs to do. Copley gets to play it broadly, mix it up and have a little fun as an “Easy Rider”-style hippie, a punker, a coke fiend in a leopard-print banana hammock and more. He is a welcome source of lightness and humor.
I admire the ambition, the vision and the level of planning it took to pull off such massive, intricately choreographed set pieces, but I can’t exactly say I enjoyed “Hardcore Henry.” By the end, when Henry is fighting off an endless onslaught of white-suited cyborgs on a Moscow rooftop, it’s just impossible to look directly at the screen anymore, and only partly because of the motion sickness that results in doing so.