Hardcore Henry movie full length review - "Hardcore Henry" is wild to its core - and ushers in a new action sub-genre: Perpetual POV
After over 100 years of feature filmmaking, and with hundreds produced in the U.S. every year (and thousands worldwide), it's not easy to invent a new subgenre.
Yet sometimes people still do it ? with the help of technology or simply a very original idea ? and with at least some influence from filmmakers who have gone before. For example, experts trace the "found footage" filmmaking format to the early 1980s, but it was the originality of "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999 which made found footage into a viable horror sub-genre. Russian rock musician and music video producer Ilya Naishuller wrote and directed 2016's "Hardcore Henry" (R, 1:36), creating a new action sub-genre. You could call it "perpetual POV".
The entire film is shot as seen through Henry's eyes. After a short scene portraying a memory from his childhood, we see him wake up in a lab, missing most of his left leg and arm, unable to speak and with almost no memory. A beautiful woman named Estelle (Haley Bennett) reassures him, as she attaches robotic appendages in place of what Henry is missing. She explains that she's his wife, that he's been in a terrible accident and her work (of which he had voiced disapproval) is now what's putting him back together. She takes him into the next room and her assistants are just about to install a computerized voice box when a colorful and violent villain called Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) breaks in and starts killing people, but has something bigger in mind. (Think Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield from "Pulp Fiction" meets Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight".) Henry doesn't know who he is, where he is, how he got there or what's happening, but it's clear he has to get away from this maniac ? and save Estelle.
Henry may not have much of a memory (or even the ability to shout vulgarities or threats at his enemies), but he does seem to have a particularly impressive set of skills ? and a remarkable lack of fear. He helps Estelle escape from the lab complex (in a very unusual location), fights off more bad guys, gets thrown off a bridge, somehow survives and is saved by a cop named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). And the movie is just getting started! Henry is helped by a series of colorful characters (all played by Copley) as Akan (who also some impressive skills ? including telekinesis) and his henchmen continue to pursue Henry and try to kill him with knives, guns, flamethrowers? and heavier weaponry. Henry doesn't have time to think about why all these guys in the black vans with the red "Akan Inc." logo want him dead because he's just trying to survive ? and that means a lot of fighting and a lot of running ? through the city of Moscow, through the woods, through a brothel, etc. The whole time, we see exactly what Henry sees, in all its action-packed, over-the-top glory. Unfortunately, it's difficult to adequately describe a movie as groundbreaking as this one, but maybe the next paragraph will help.
As original as his film is, Naishuller and "Hardcore Henry" definitely stand on the shoulders of others. To start with, it's the GoPro-type of wearable camera technology that makes this film possible, and almost all of it was shot with the GoPro HERO3 Black. Earlier music videos that Naishuller produced for his band "Biting Elbows" inspired this, his first feature. It could also be said that the film's distant cousins include both the found footage horror sub-genre and modern first-person player video games. In fact, the video game "Payday 2" engaged in a cross-promotion with this film. As for still other cinematic influences, "Hardcore Henry" has led some to favorably compare Naishuller to Quentin Tarantino, and the movie itself calls to mind several others. At various moments, "Hardcore Henry" may make a Movie Fan think of "Robocop", "I, Robot", "The Bourne Identity", "Crank", "Shoot 'Em Up", "Deadpool" or the "Fast and Furious" films. That's not to imply that "Hardcore Henry" copies those others, just that referencing them makes this one easier to describe. The point is, if you like those movies, you'll probably like this one.
"Hardcore Henry" is wild and crazy to its core. Going in, I was skeptical of the movie's ability to maintain the single POV conceit for its entire running time and still be entertaining. I needn't have worried. The action is easier to follow than I expected and Naishuller is smart enough to let the movie breathe, rather than let Movie Fans feel like they're in a 96-minute free fall. The cinematography is impressive and the set pieces are original and fun, but it's the actors who sell it. Copley shows impressive range in his many characters and makes them interesting to watch. Kozlovsky is underused, but pitch-perfect in all his creepy mania, while Bennett's performance is a bit shallow, but serviceable. The villains are consistently menacing, but almost universally one-dimensional. Of course, there's not much time for character development when your first moment on screen is your last? which brings me to my main criticism. The movie's premise and style are original enough that it didn't need such a high body count or so much graphic violence to be entertaining. Yet, if the film's biggest sin is? overkill, then successfully launching the "perpetual POV" sub-genre makes it worthwhile, especially for the action movie-minded. "B+"