Just when you thought you might never be thrilled by an action sequence or shocked by onscreen violence ever again, along comes a film that shakes you out of your complacency. Hardcore Henry is a nonstop thrill ride, a relentless parade of ultraviolence shot entirely from a first-person perspective, and it’s unlike anything you’ll have ever seen on a cinema screen before.
Thing is, it’s quite a lot like something you probably have seen on your telly before, because it’s exactly like a computer game. The setup is pretty brief: Henry (a GoPro camera and a pair of hands) wakes up in a lab, gets new robotic arms and legs screwed on by his hot scientist wife Estelle (Haley Bennett, in a lab coat and high heels), and is told that although he’s got no memory of anything happening, he’s just been saved from certain death. And then everything goes nuts. Before Estelle and her team of rock n’ roll science bros get a chance to install Henry’s voice module, a security alarm goes off and a telekinetic supervillain shows up – and the chase is on.
The pace barely lets up from there. In a dizzying sequence that involves a bit of sky diving and a lot of falling over, Henry escapes capture but loses his wife to uberbaddie Akan (Danila Kozlovsky). Running through the streets of Moscow, he’s met by a mysterious guide who introduces himself as Jimmy (Sharlto Copley, with an extremely plummy British accent). Jimmy tests Henry’s battery power, tells him he’s got about 20 minutes to live, and sends him off on a killing spree. Cue more running, a bit of parkour, and lashings of eye-popping brutality.
As an adaptation of the kind of action-adventure game where you run around pretending to complete missions but actually just smashing up everything you can find, it’s pitch perfect. Henry isn’t a character so much as a player proxy, a silent blank space. His overarching mission is to save Estelle and kill Akan, though he’ll have to level up his skills and battle some other mid-level baddies before he can do that. In Jimmy, he’s even got one of those annoying friend/boss/commander type characters; until the finale, Jimmy mostly just rings him up and gives him new GPS coordinates to run to.
There are also plenty of examples of the kind of outré humour you get in games like the Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row franchises, as Henry accidentally takes out innocent passers by while crashing down escalators, or tries and fails to ride an unbroken horse. If this were a game, it’d be kind of fun, but a bit pointless.
As a film, though, it gets stale fast. For the first half hour, it’s admittedly exhilarating to watch real actors doing the kind of stunts you generally only get to watch sprites doing, and fans of Neveldine/Taylor movies like Crank and Gamer will get a kick out of the zippy camera work and escalating violence. After that half hour’s over, though, it starts to get a bit tiring. The first-person perspective means the kills initially feel shockingly visceral, but there’s only so many times you can watch someone’s head get blown off or their chest get ripped open before it all starts to look a bit samey. Throw in some tediously juvenile sexism, and it’s all just kind of exhausting.
Hardcore Henry does have a couple of ideas up its sleeve, and there are some dramatic reveals in the final reel, but you’ll have worked them out before they arrive, and they don’t really change much anyway. None of it really matters, because Henry isn’t a character, just a viewpoint. That’s the point of him, of course, but what works in a game doesn’t really work as well in a film, because without a gamepad to move him around, there’s not much to get an audience invested.
Technically, this film is a hell of an achievement, and there’s a certain exuberance to the action that’s hard to resist, but 90 minutes of relentless macho posturing and blood spatter is more than anyone needs.
Hardcore Henry is out now in UK cinemas.