Hardcore Henry opens with a violent series of close-ups dominating the screen. A pistol fires into a torso, a knife tears through a neck — but it’s not until a brick awkwardly flies into the side of a head that the film coyly starts to reveal its true tone: blunt, to be sure, but in such a nonsensical way that it’s endearing.
Such is Hardcore Henry, a wildly bombastic action movie that is purely manufactured escapism, for better and for worse — and for hilarity. It’s an audacious experiment that both tries to transcend the action genre and falls victim to its conventions, but it never stops being a ridiculous ride.
Concerning its attempted transcendence of typical action fare, Hardcore Henry’s central conceit is that it takes place entirely from a first-person point of view. The movie was famously shot on a GoPro strapped to a stuntman’s head: from the moment the titular cyborg Henry wakes up in a lab with no memory and a fierce set of fighting skills, we see every gory death through his eyes.
By drawing from promotional material — and, well, common sense — many would assume that this groundbreaking method of action cinematography is where the film most excels, while other silly necessities such as character development or atmosphere falter. Oddly enough, it’s the other way around.
That’s not to say the first-person insanity isn’t exciting or compelling. Depending on one’s tolerance for a near constant onslaught of over the top action, it can be both. The fight scenes, battle locations, and gunplay extravaganzas are consistently inventive and eclectic. But the style suffers from a fundamental flaw: filmmaking, as a medium, isn’t sufficient for first-person storytelling yet. Hardcore Henry has drawn comparison to video games in its use of first-person as an immersion technique, but without the necessary dimension of actually controlling a character, the movie loses any feeling of letting the viewer be Henry.
In a theater setting, with our real lives in the periphery of our vision, it feels like we’re simply getting a closer seat to the action rather than becoming the hero. Perhaps this style can be a complete experience after the medium embraces virtual reality.
Where Hardcore Henry does excel is in its humor and tone. It’s a genuinely hilarious blast with a sense of humor that’s reminiscent of 2014’s Snowpiercer: many of its laughs come from jarring shifts in tone from hyperviolence to strange non-sequiturs. By contrasting the feigned self-seriousness of its conflicts with bizarre narrative intrusions, Hardcore Henry adds an unavoidable guilty pleasure even for those who don’t appreciate the bloodletting. Only a series of jokes stemming uncomfortably from the male gaze falters completely, proving that the action genre still needs to better understand its widening audience demographic.
The movie’s beating comedic heart truly belongs to resident “weird guy” actor Sharlto Copley though. He plays Jimmy, an ally of Henry who cannot seem to pick a single personality. Ironically, Copley imbues Hardcore Henry’s simplistic narrative with quite a tangible personality. Just like the movie, he doesn’t seem to be taking things too seriously, but he gives the loose cannon his all. The main protagonists and antagonists are never as noteworthy as Jimmy, but they are drawn uniquely enough to remain interesting throughout.
At one point, Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” accompanies a prominent fight scene. 12 years ago, Edgar Wright did the same in his seminal Shaun of the Dead to display his framing and pacing proficiency. Hardcore Henry’s director Ilya Naishuller utilizes the song to… have a fun song play during a fun scene. If this movie really does signify the future of action filmmaking, the genre might not be headed in a particularly artful direction, but there are still great times to be had.