Hardcore Henry is probably one of the better video game movies to come out in recent memory. True, it’s not based on any video game and the game adaptation comparison is a bit of a low bar considering the competition, but Hardcore Henry accomplishes what those films ultimately failed to translate; transposing the energy of playing a video game into a cinematic landscape. Director Ilya Naishuller strived to make a film completely within that first person perspective to mimic the classic style of First Person Shooter (or FPS) games like Doom, Counter Strike or Call of Duty. To his credit, the cinematography really manages to capture that more often than not, showing off a dedication to the technique that’s impressive. The biggest trouble is that Naishuller captures something more along the line of the various clones or repetitive sequels to those franchises rather than something truly innovative or unique that would make it stand out in a Game Stop used game section a few months after its release.
The basic structure of Hardcore Henry mirrors that of any of these individual games, mainly plotting its course in a semi-stream of consciousness style that allows the action to speed along with the general sleek adrenaline of a video game. It’s not just there in the style, but even in some of the archetypes. Sharlto Copley‘s character(s) is very much the information dolling out side character or Danila Kozlovsky‘s over the top villain character that seems poorly dubbed both come right out of such games. Yet, there isn’t as much escalation with the intensity or severity of the action. Some of the sequences can be fun, particularly moments like a car chase on the road that literally breaks through vehicles. However, there’s never a sense of the titular POV character truly picking up skills along the way, which would show some sort of an arc for the silent literal audience perspective character that fit the aesthetic. Instead, Henry is just simply told where to go and given enhancements, allowing him to either fail miserably or smack things around perfectly for an individual gag. That can be decently entertaining for a video game or even at points in the film, but it gives the small eventual attempts at emotional heartstring pulling has such little affect.
The aesthetic is also driven by a much more ugly and muddy visual style, mainly to hide a lot of the clear seams that hold the film’s action sequences together. Often, Henry will conveniently have a glitch in his wiring that makes him unable to see certain moments or glaze over cuts in the action. The editing is often the problem here, choosing the most muddled camera work to showcase to hide the cuts in a way that’s disorienting without the fun of seeing the action smoothly displayed. It’s forgivable issue depending on the action sequence in question or heavily dependent on the film’s best asset: Sharlto Copley. Copley’s character allows him to put on multiple disguises and play a wacky variety of facets, sprinkling in variety that’s vastly needed for the proceedings that can get more than a bit repetitive action wise. Still, his humor sometimes dips into another problem of Hardcore Henry, which is this not-so-sublte and off putting bro-culture aspect that bleeds through in the style and characters. A few gay panic jokes, a continuous promotion of more toxic masculinity and female characters that are relative non-entities or often screw things over for our main character with reckless abandon. It’s probably not malicious, but can be seen through all of the iconography that the film carries and unintentionally links it to some of the worst aspects of video game culture.
I’ll give Hardcore Henry true points for trying. When the moments of action burst on the screen with consistent voltage – particularly the final fight against our lead villain – it’s a raucous good time that’s peppered with some of Sharlto Copley’s best character work since District 9. But one has to sit through a rather ugly and confusingly edited film that takes the gimmick of first person POV & gives it to people we’re rather uninvested in. The few attempts to pad out the more uncomfortable masculinity feel like too little too late and make this a mixed bag overall. It feels much like producer Timur Bekmambetov‘s previous production Unfriended, taking a unique gimmick to present a genre effort and giving it a try to mixed results. Yet, much like Unfriended, Hardcore Henry proves that there’s potential in this style for a feature length effort. Let’s just hope the next one to do this learns from the foibles here.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Sharlto Copley Disguises