For decades, it has been considered an insult to suggest your movie feels like a video game. While there have been post-modern collages that would deconstruct gamers’ preferred tropes, such as Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and more mediocre video game-adapted films than there are pixels in a PS4 title, the actual experience of watching someone else hold the sticks for an inaccessible adventure used to be about as appealing as internet photos of strangers’ food.
Thus what strange and heady times we live in: Instagram meal-bragging is more popular than ever, and Hardcore Henry, the first film to be shot entirely from the POV of a first-person shooter, is not only akin to watching a white-knuckled and ultra violent video game, but that is also exactly the high compliment the filmmakers might seek. For in the age of Pewdiepie, the times are a-changin’.
On its own, Hardcore Henry is excessive, crude, vapid… and a whole lot of fun. Constructed to force the viewer to be complicit in the violence since the camera lens is literally eponymous Henry’s set of eyes, you are right there with him as he fights, shoots, and eviscerates his enemies with a surprisingly varied array of weapons and household items. Ostensibly, the narrative is about a cyborg who after a tragedy has been upgraded by his devoted wife into a nigh indestructible killing machine. And this will come in handy since just about everything else in the movie is destructible and/or killed.
But at it heart, Hardcore Henry is in every sense the product of a generation reared on video games, right down to a princess in need of saving. After sweet, angelic Estelle (Haley Bennett), the aforementioned wife, is kidnapped by villainous Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a fiend with the derivative ability to control metal like a certain comic book baddie, as well as the desire to build an army of cyborgs just as hardcore as Henry, the camera will participate in one daring FPS set-piece after another, all the while knowing the princess is in another castle.
To cut past all pretense, Henry is a thoroughly shallow film that features a narrative about as flimsy as any you’ve likely played through on a console. Yet, it is also, for the most part, a highly inventive and stylish one with as much creativity as its director Ilya Naishuller and stuntmen/cameramen have chutzpah.
Whereas other movies have featured action scenes filmed in the now iconic (and impractical) format of holding a gun directly at the eye-line perspective—such as the previously mentioned Kick-Ass, as well as the otherwise forgotten Doom movie adaptation—none have found the stupid-silly kind of spectacles of Henry, a movie that has its GoPro camera operator enter into fisticuffs, fall out of planes, and slaughter a small army while hopping from one floor of a decrepit hotel to another. My particular favorite moment is where “Henry” clings to the back of a motorcyclist during a chase before he jumps to enemy vehicles Indiana Jones-style, complete with eventually being dragged behind the wheels.
For the sheer ingenuity of seeing these stunts accomplished from such a vantage point, the film will be an instant hit with its target teen audience—whether they see it in theaters or, in what is its likely destiny, as a sort of orientation film in late night dorm rooms for freshman guys.
That is not to say it is devoid of its own actual creative strength away from the stunts. There is also the other secret weapon: Sharlto Copley as Jimmy—a lot of Jimmys. Almost a wink and nudge to how all Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) are interchangeable to gamers as they espouse exposition that get your digital cipher from point A to point B, Copley plays everyone that helps Henry, from seeming secret agents to free-loving hippies, to an especially surreal moment as a Gene Kelly-dressed performer who is belting a Frank Sinatra ballad during the second act musical number (yes).
There is an in-story reason for why Copley plays half the cast, but it’s inconsequential like the rest of the film’s narrative, because at the end of the day, whatever success this film has at transferring a video game experience to moviegoers, it still feels like a video game with all that implies. Not once does Henry represent anything less than a blank avatar for the audience, and thus his motivation to save his wife or kill the bad guy feels about as detailed as his dialogue (he’s a mute, for the record).
Also, there is ultimately a disconnect between watching this perspective without controlling it. The sensation of passivity is inescapable since Hardcore Henry is inherently a FPS that you are witnessing someone else maneuver. When coupled with a lack of stakes, it transforms into the first cut-scene that was created with primarily in-camera stunts.
Additionally, there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of stereotypical gamer logic here where the women in this film are either the damsel in distress or (quite literally) untrustworthy whores who are all disposed of with extreme prejudice. It would be unfair to broadly suggest this is an issue with even most gamers, but the cliché feels implicitly present here when, until the very end, the female characters are treated as fodder and eye candy to fill in the blanks between the shoot ‘em ups.
However, like all the other FPS and gaming tropes being adapted here, this bit of nastiness is played for laughs and set-ups for more shots of adrenaline. Hence, the movie lives or dies by its aerial camerawork and stunts, which in this case are phenomenal. To whine too much about the depth of a movie that features a GoPro angle of a man jumping off a 30-floor building with a rope would be like complaining about the narrative logic of any other shooter, and this is a pretty damn crazy one in cinematic form.
A brave new world, indeed.