‘Harcore Henry’ (2016) | SXSW Review

I am all for balls-to-the-wall, crazy action films. Whether it be the remarkable choreography of the two The Raid films of the complete insanity of the two Crank films, I love an all out assault of non-stop action. I just ask two things from it: 1) Film the action in a way where I can admire the technical feat of it and 2) Give me a main character with a goal and motivations I can care about. Hardcore Henry, the first-person shoot ’em up from Ilya Naishuller, wants to be in this pantheon of chaos, but it miserably fails at meeting that criteria, making for a totally dizzying, jumbled mess that is far more tedious than it is awesome.

Henry, the man whose perspective we see the film from, has been resurrected from death and given bionic body parts (which comes with basically superpower strength). He also has had his memory wiped. His wife (Haley Bennett) is kidnapped by a warlord (Danila Kozlovsky) with telekinetic powers who wants to make bio-tech soldiers, much like Henry. With the help of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a man who can show up at any point with any look, Henry has to track down the warlord, stop him, and retrieve his wife, not unlike a Super Mario game (but, y’know, with a lot more blood).

The gimmick behind Hardcore Henry is shooting the film from a first-person perspective, supposedly making the audience the protagonist in a story. First-person storytelling is nothing new, particularly with the rise of first-person shooter video games in the last decade or so. Naishuller wants to get the same rise out of you that you would get playing a game with the movie, but he misunderstands the biggest reason why you can do that in a game. The person playing the game literally is controlling the story. With a film that has predetermined choices and pacing, the audience has zero control over where they want the story to go and, more importantly, how they want the character they are controlling to behave. Shooting the movie with a first-person perspective actually distances the audience more, as it gives the aesthetic of immersion without any of the substance. So, the titular Henry is purposefully made a blank slate and remains a blank slate instead of growing because of that lack of interactivity.


Shooting first-person also destroys my other criterion for enjoying a crazy action film. This is shaky-cam action to the extreme. The benefits of computer controlled visuals in a video game is you get some degree of smoothness in order to see your surroundings, even while running very fast. There is no such benefit with this film. There is a guy holding a camera and running really fast. Sure, it’s kinetic but disorienting. I don’t really get motion sick, but this had me teetering on it. You also do not get to see some of the truly great stunt work in the film.

There is one chase in particular, and I believe this moment is in the trailer. Henry jumps on top of a truck, throws some grenades in it, and it explodes. He then flies backwards and lands on the back of a moving motorcycle. That is an impressive stunt. Unfortunately, we do not get the benefit of seeing this in a glorious wide shot to admire the physical difficulty in pulling a stunt like that off. It’s shaky, fast, and close. It flies by so quickly that you could easily miss it. And because everything is shot exactly the same, it just blends in with the rest of the film rather than crafting a moment. It is the same visually as when Jimmy is informing Henry on a place he needs to go. It’s all pitched without variation.

It was only a matter of time before video game aesthetics drove a film. Yes, video game elements having been seeping in, from level structures to respawning, but a film hasn’t yet been entirely designed to look like a video game. Hardcore Henry perfectly shows us why those aesthetics belong in video games and do not suit themselves so much to a non-interactive medium. The game that will inevitably come out based on this movie will probably be pretty fun. As for the movie itself, there is not much to recommend about it. There is no character development, no story intrigue, and no well-filmed action. For a movie that solely wants to be a fun time in the theater, it misses the mark completely. I admire Ilya Naishuller for at least trying this technique, but now we know it never needs to be done again.


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