It’s easy to look at a film like Hardcore Henry as little more than a 90-minute GoPro camera sizzle reel, and if we’re being honest, that’s exactly what it is. Writer-director Ilya Naishuller’s anarchist experiment (think the gonzo meta inventiveness of the Crank movies funneled through the first-person lens that Doom thought would redeem its whole existence) is a brassed white knuckle thrill ride hell bent on changing the way your stomach experiences action movies. And you don’t even need a controller to play.
The movie’s set up is as bare bones but neatly structured as any modern FPS you can name: Henry wakes up in a Russian laboratory with amnesia and two stumps where his left arm and leg used to be. While attaching his shiny new appendages, scientist Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs him that he’s been turned into a cyborg and that they’re husband and wife, seemingly all the motivation he needs before she’s kidnapped by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a telekinetic maniac who wants to build an entire army of Henrys. And since the kidnapping happens in the middle of his “rebooting,” Henry can’t speak (his voice module wasn’t installed). He even gets help from Jimmy (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), an NPC-type supporting player who can seemingly be everywhere at once.
Judging from Naishuller’s music video work with his band Biting Elbows (both videos were shot with the same GoPro Hero 3 camera rigged used for Henry), he’s a kid with a watermelon wrapped in rubber bands packed in a shoebox, waiting for it to blow up in the world’s face. What Hardcore Henry manages to do with a premise that would condemn most games to the bargain bin (or propel them to platinum-level sales) is so much more than just “make a good action movie;” though rest assured, Naishuller and company have done just that. The opening credits alone depict Henry shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning, and otherwise harming others with almost pornographic glee, but the movie proper manages to go even harder. Seeing the world from Henry’s eyes as he races across rooftops, rips open ribcages, and hops from exploding car to motorcycle in the blink of an eye remains a joy throughout, a note that only gets higher because of its deceptive simplicity.
If you’re a gamer (first-person shooters, in particular), you’re more than familiar with the typical faceless voiceless protagonist who’s tasked with completing objectives, more or less, simply because they’re told to. Henry’s involvement in – and level of effect on – his own story (read: destiny) continually creeps around the margins of the action scenes in a way that slaps a clown nose on the more generic aspects of the story, while at the same time, the truth about Jimmy offers a science fiction-tinged poignancy that grounds said action scenes squarely in a tonal sweet spot that makes Hardcore Henry more than just the sum of its parts.
Hardcore Henry is fun and inventive enough to work purely as a 90-minute video game/movie hybrid spectacle on the surface, but buckets of blood and a smidge of self-awareness make it an experience that rewards you for indulging your inner child.