Do you dig intense action sequences in movies? Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your favorite action sequence. Does it make you giggle? Multiply that by ten and you might get close to the thrill-ride that is Hardcore Henry. Shot using GoPro cameras to provide a unique first-person experience, Hardcore Henry immerses audiences in the action unlike any film before and without any additional technology to add to the experience. We see what Henry sees and hear what Henry hears, exactly as he experiences it. At first glance, Hardcore Henry seems like a gimmick-laced spectacle that would quickly cave-in underneath its own ambition, but that is the furthest from the truth. Written and directed by Ilya Naishuller, Hardcore Henry surprises by containing the story of an amnesiac drop-kicked into a science-fiction mystery. Curious? Good. Because this intense take-you-by-surprise thrill ride is available now on BluRay, DVD, and VOD for you to enjoy at home.
When Henry is woken from stasis by a beautiful woman (Haley Bennett of The Equalizer), he learns that he died brutally and the woman waking him, Estelle, is his wife. Before he’s fully put back together, they are attacked by a telekinetic mercenary named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) who wants to use Henry in his plan for world domination. After escaping Akan, Henry finds himself on the streets of Moscow and everyone wants him dead, except for the disappearing-reappearing enigmatic Jimmy (Sharlto Copley of District 9 and The A-Team). With danger at every turn and no idea what’s going on, Henry has to save his wife from Akan and learn the truth before it’s all too late.
Admittedly, the first-person viewpoint does take some getting used to, however, once you’re in, you’re drawn in more than ever to the story as it plays out. Once you get used to the camerawork, Naishuller provides a fully immersive cinematic experience unlike any other you’ll see. First-person camerawork is nothing new, having been used in music videos and video games, but never before have film audiences had a chance to follow a protagonist from beginning to end so vividly. To maintain pacing Naishuller utilizes jump cuts rather than opting for a continuously flow of movement. Doing so removes unnecessary shots and adds to the kinetic feel of the narrative. Naishuller cleverly provides cover of the jump cuts through the use image distortion when Henry runs low on power or takes a shot to the head. Later, after a particularly hard fall, Henry’s vision becomes completely distorted when one of his retinas comes loose, thereby splitting the screen into two images: one correct and the other flipped. These visual cues support the narrative that Henry is more machine than man, while also continuing the idea that our “narrator” is unreliable. Additionally, stunt man Andrey Dementyev, the body of Henry, is never given a voice and the audience is hardly given a glimpse at his face. Typically this would suggest an attempt to make the audience psychologically place themselves in his shoes; however, this concept of the “empty man” comes back around within the narrative in a chillingly, surprising way. The fact that it’s more than set dressing adds to the unexpected layers within Hardcore Henry.
Like Henry, the audience isn’t told everything at once. Instead, we’re shown bits and pieces, fragments of images that hold little meaning. Henry and the audience go on a journey together to discover the truth. A beautiful woman tells us she’s our wife and then gets kidnapped – we must rescue her. A man with telekinetic powers kills several people – we must stop him. We meet a man who has the ability to change his appearance, seemingly at will, who someone knows our name and how to repair our damage – we trust him. Over and over, Naishuller presents information within the narrative that Henry, and by extension, the audience, take as absolute truths. We, the audience, have seen this action film, have played this video game, so many times that we know what to expect. So when we’re told things, we accept them, but the question Naishuller slowly has us ask is – should we? This singular question at the core of the narrative is what makes Hardcore Henry highly rewatchable.
Part of what makes a movie like Hardcore Henry fun is the actors. It’s not just a question of whether they’re any good – they are – but whether they look like they are having any fun. From this perspective, we can’t discuss Andrey Dementyev, but it’s certain that Naishuller put him through the paces and Dementyev handled it all with seeming ease. Sharlto Copley, however, as Jimmy takes clear delight in every scene he appears in. Jimmy is a seemingly bizarre character – looking mercenary-cool one moment and hippie chic another – whose background would explain too much and ruin too much of the fun. Suffice it to say that Copley handles the diverse personalities of Jimmy with sublime execution, each one enabling Copley to show off his immense talent. As fun as Copley is to watch, though, Danila Kozlovsky has a delightful time chewing the scenery every time he appears, which somehow increases Akan’s unpredictablity. Though his screen time is minimal, Akan feels omnipresent and his telekinetic powers make him seem unstoppable against Henry’s physical force. We learn little about Akan beyond his desire for world domination, yet Akan rarely seems one-note as Kozlovsky strikes a balance within his delivery to provide Akan’s character shape. Gratefully, of all the main characters, the least useless is Haley Bennett’s Estelle. Her character first appears as a damsel, yet evolves – like Henry – into something far more lethal. Each of these characters toy with the audience’s expectations and are masterfully executed by each of the actors portraying them. The only actor I felt was underused is Tim Roth (The Incredible Hulk/The Hateful Eight), seen only in two memory sequences, as Henry’s father. His character is minimal, impacts the story greatly, and whose appearance would not fit in any other way within the narrative. In a story whose intent and focus shifts with each new piece of information, Roth’s portrayal of Henry’s father is far more significant than initially assumed. My only regret is that there isn’t more of Roth in the movie.
From the outside Hardcore Henry reads like any other actioner and at various points within the movie it could have fallen into that trap. Through the use of layered storytelling, clever timing, and a competent cast, Henry never gets boring or, worse, exhausting. Instead, it’s almost assured that you’ll want to go another round with Henry to see what comes next. Sadly, it seems that won’t be the case as the director himself said that this is a one-shot. That’s ok, though. By story’s end, Henry’s quest is done and audiences are left feeling triumphant. So if you can get past the herky-jerky camera work, buckle in and go for one of the most satisfying action films this year.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
- Deleted Scenes
- Fan Chat
- Feature Commentaries with Director/Producer Ilya Naishuller and Star/Executive Producer Sharlto Copley
To learn more about the process of making Hardcore Henry, other behind-the-scenes tidbits, and generally just learn more about featured star/executive producer Sharlto Copley, check out this Nerdist Podcast interview from March 29th, 2016.