It seems to me that the action genre has been maligned in recent years, probably because at least ninety percent of it consists of creatively bankrupt, pitifully vapid, painfully generic dross. When I first saw the trailer for Hardcore Henry, I admit that my first reaction was a pretentious sneer at the blazing neon lights blatantly forming the words “Gimmick! Gimmick! Look at me!”
So no-one was more surprised than I at the fact that Hardcore Henry turned out to be one of the most raucous joyrides that I’ve had the pleasure to experience all year.
If you can imagine the barnstorming popularity of a modern FPS like Call of Duty mixed with the anarchic joyful energy of From Dusk till Dawn or Planet Terror, then that’s pretty much H. Henry in a nutshell.
The film comes to us from the frenzied creative imagination of Russian newcomer Ilya Naishuller who become something of a YouTube celebrity after the airing of the first-person POV music video Biting Elbows: Bad Motherfucker way back in 2013. The response to the video was so enthusiastic, in fact, that producer Timur Bekmambetov approached Naishuller to financed his first feature.
Hardcore Henry is filmed in Naishuller’s now-signature first-person style, and follows the story of a cybernetically enhanced übermensch who wakes up in a mysterious facility with no memory of his surroundings. What follows is a breakneck adventure of survival and revenge as the titular Henry stabs, garrotes, shoots, parkours, and punches his way through legions of his fellow man.
The remarkable thing about Hardcore Henry is that it’s got every single element that it needed to make itself worthwhile. We all saw the trailers, and many of us (myself included) initially dismissed the film as nothing but a vapid, gimmicky cash-in, but what I didn’t count on was Hardcore Henry having a wonderfully creative framework on which to hang the delicious, meaty action.
The story is an odyssey, essentially, as Henry learns about the dangerous and frightening world that he’s been thrust into and meets an exciting and colorful cast of characters along the way. Naishuller’s writing reveals just the right amount of information to keep us hooked and craving more, as glimpses of a much larger and complex world gradually come to light.
One of my few criticisms, however, is that the expository scenes can be a little stop-and-start, so to speak, as action sequences tend to be bookended by much slower paced scenes that occasionally break the flow of the relentlessly high-octane action. That said, it’s definitely worth noting that Hardcore Henry delivered a more competently told story than any of us had any right to expect.
As far is the action is concerned, it’s engaging, it’s visceral, it’s set to a bangin’ soundtrack of rock ballads interspersed with satisfying deep-house beats, it makes superb use of three-dimensional space in a way that actual AAA shooters could only dream of and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s gratifying to say that the film runs for precisely as long as it needs to and appropriately knows when to ramp up the action to a glorious, bloody crescendo. An action movie that isn’t afraid to show graphic depictions of violence? Groundbreaking, I know.
I feel that special mention should be made of that practical stunts on display here. When asked to comment on the SFX in the film, Naishuller had this to say:
“The balance is that you do everything you can practically and then you help it with CG. You don’t do everything with CG and help it practically. I love practical stuff and I love all the prosthetics and things with real, physical weight. I love designing that stuff…
There’s practical blood, but we added a little more so it’s more visible. There is wirework, so we had to hide all the wires. But the stunt man really is jumping from that bicycle at fucking high speeds and [landing] on the top of a van and he needs the wires and there’s the shadow of the wires that we have to take out.”
Naishuller’s passion for filmmaking and attention to detail do him serious credit, and he’s one of the very few filmmakers working in the action genre that I’m excited by and want to see more of.
On a different note, the always-excellent Sharlto Copley makes an appearance as the (really not trying to spoil here) enigmatic Jimmy, and the big to-do concerning his death definitely makes a play for the best running gag in a film this year.
I realize full well that our collective desire to remain aloof and hypercritical of new ideas might preemptively turn a lot of people away from Hardcore Henry, but if you think, as I do, that the modern day action scene has been missing balls, a brain, and a bit of heart, you may discover that our old pal Henry is a more-than-willing donor.
Plus it’s fun. Remember when we used to have fun at the movies?
Actually, on second thought, neither do I.
Rating: 4 out of 5