5 out of 5
Directed by: Ilya Naishuller
It’s a pretty poor or petty review approach to say that other reviews are wrong – these are opinion pieces, after all – but let’s just say that I don’t understand the general apathy that was found for Hardcore Henry at time of release. It was outright shutdown in some cases, but in most it was a mix of criticism a threadbare plot, and stating that the action became tiresome over its 90 minutes, or that between the two – story and actionry – there wasn’t a “point” for the movie to exist.
Again, this is subjective stuff to a degree – how effective one finds those elements – but there are certainly movies where action or a sense of non-stop onslaught is the primary reason something is praised, with Raid or the recent M:I movies coming to mind. And so I kinda maybe sorta have to wonder if Hardcore Henry doomed itself by being advertised / billed as being shot ‘like a video game.’ Its defining attribute is undeniably its first person perspective, and the only descriptor we apparently have for that is to liken it to a first person shooter, even though sequences of first person have certainly existed in films before… though surely not to this degree. We were still a few years away at the time of Henry’s release for games to start getting writeups in “respected” forums, like the appearance of a video game section on Roger Ebert’s site, and there’s still the stigma of video game movies being automatically subpar ones. So: I posit that that hung over the film for many.
Because Hardcore Henry is one of the best action flicks I’ve seen, with sequences that would be damned fun even if presented standardly, but that’s kind of besides the point – they take on a whole new level of intensity from the FP perspective, and the scenes are designed to take advantage of that. Furthermore, its threadbare plot is, I’d say, less-so than half a dozen other genre flicks, with a winky awareness of its MacGuffin fetch quests that had me laughing whenever the titular Henry was pointed toward literal points on a map and just told to ‘go there.’
My main concern when going in to the flick was the exhaustion factor, but writer / director Ilya Naishuller remained aware of this, allowing for pauses of conversation between breathless action, or even beats within the sequences themselves. More importantly, the shaky-cam what-the-hell-am-I-seeing setup that plagues a cousin of this style – found footage flicks – just doesn’t exist here. Naishuller was particular about the GoPro rig that was used, and that particularity pays off: you always have a sense of place within a space, allowing for smart edits to be applied to chop some bits up so we also aren’t dragged through unnecessary real time steps from moment to moment. As to the repetitiveness of that action, I’d again reference Raid: like that film’s director, Gareth Evans, Naishuller knew to toss some new wrinkle in to the many, many, many complex sequences, whether that means a new weapon, or a crazy, multi-layered set, or etc. I was on board with the flick the whole while, but a scene toward the end which veered in to Dead Alive insanity put me over the top of appreciating what was being done here: it’s kitchen sink visuals, but with a masterful control over when the sink gets tossed in to the mix.
Hardcore Henry’s story does, admittedly, borrow from a gaming sense of escalation, but I’d also say it’s comparable enough to any film’s one-dimensional badguy: Henry wakes up, his cybernetic bits being put together, and he’s told by his wife (Haley Bennett) that a dude named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) is a dangerous, horrible person, and a few minutes later, Akan is bursting through the door, kidnapping said wife, and Henry jumps out of the plane he was apparently on, spending the next 90 minutes trying to hunt down Akan. He’s helped along by the various incarnations of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who keeps popping up in different outfits after being seemingly being killed, and delivers most of the movie’s story stitching in an amusing, on-the-go fashion, twisting things, along the way, from kooky sci-fi into something I found to be surprisingly complex. It was certainly enough, anyway, to not just ignore the story – I was legitimately interested in finding out where this was going, when I wasn’t glued to my screen during the bevy of action.
If there’s one thing that gave me pause, it was the film’s attitude towards women and sexuality. Jimmy makes some off-color remarks about homosexuality, and it’s easy to spot some misogyny woven in there as well. After sitting with this for a while, I want to give the movie some benefit of doubt: all of this is expressed from Jimmy; Henry – while not speaking – doesn’t ogle women during his time in a strip club – he’s focused on his task – and due to the way Jimmy’s story plays out, it’s possible there’s actually intended to be some commentary regarding how focused he is on these “masculine” expressions of identity. This is something that could be further defined by knowing more about the director, or perhaps something to consider when his next film comes out (it’s 2020 now; that’s slated for 2021), and could certainly affect my rating in retrospect.
But for now: Hardcore Henry was one of the most exciting, and precisely made action flicks I have ever seen.