Thirty seconds was all it took. After that I abandoned the trailer, ignored all the promo material and crossed my fingers that Hardcore Henry, Ilya Naishuller's first feature film, would make it into Belgium theaters. And for once, luck was on my side. When I finally sat down in the theater my expectations were sizable, even though I had managed to ignore the hype surrounding the film. All I can say is that Naishuller exceeded them effortlessly, delivering a film that could proudly crown itself the new action film benchmark, a film all upcoming action flicks will be measured against.
Hardcore Henry is a rarity, especially amongst theatrical offerings. Pretty much every film that ends up in theaters these days is made with one foot on the brake, Naishuller on the other hand lets his film run wild. It's madness from start to finish, a production merely concerned with being as badass as possible while ignoring possible audience fallout in the process. It's the kind of film that score a 5/10 on average not because everybody was unmoved by it, but because it's a true love it or hate it affair.
The main draw of Hardcore Henry is its POV setup. From the very first to the very last frame, everything in the film is experienced through the eyes of Henry, our main character. While this may sounds rather uneventful after a decade's worth of found footage horrors, the actual experience is quite different. For one, while Henry is never seen in full (they left out the obligatory FPS mirror scene), we often see his hands (and guns) onscreen. There's also no camera that can be put aside or can be dropped during a wild chase. Nor is there any kind of multi-camera setup that can be exploited. There are only two short moments where we don't experience normal vision and that's when Henry's eyes aren't firmly lodged inside his skull.
If you're concerned about the somewhat derivative plot (and be warned, it really isn't much to look at), this probably isn't a film for you. It's a combination of popular game tropes, with androids, armies of super soldiers, bad guys with telekinetic powers and whatnot. Our hero lost his memories, has been brought back to life using a couple of strength-increasing prosthetics and is pretty much running from A to B, either because someone told him or because he's being shot at. It's definitely not prize-winning material, then again it's not meant to be.
Visually though, it's a totally superior film. The POV camera work is more than just a gimmick or a nod to FPS games (think Doom, Half-Life). Naishuller exploits the technique in order to put the audience in the craziest situations imaginable. Henry flies through the air, gets hit by cars, barges through minivans, climbs walls, is set on fire ... and we can all experience it through his eyes, as if we're doing it ourselves. There is some room for improvement of course, but for a first-time effort the bar is set almost impossibly high. I can only hope others will copy Naishuller's work and either refine it, or see how it may add to other genres.
The soundtrack is probably the least hardcore element of the film. It's sometimes used for comedic effect (Queen's Don't Stop Me Now as part of the finale is sure to draw some smiles) and it's edited quite nicely to the visuals, but mostly it's just a loud and in your face mix of rock and electronic dance music. Luckily it's not the lame movie-disco variety of electronic, but for a film called Hardcore Henry the music could've been a bit more hardcore I guess. That said, the soundtrack does the job and that's what's important here.
Henry himself is a faceless character, lacking any discernible trace of personality. He never thinks, reasons or evaluates, he merely listens and reacts. This lack of individuality is offset by Sharlto Copley's collection of characters. Copley is clearly having the time of his life, taking on different roles and guiding the audience from set piece to set piece. I liked him best as the old British soldier, but the hippie and party boy are also memorable incarnations. Bennett is okay but has little to work with, Kozlovsky goes way over the top and is lucky the film can cope with it. All in all the casting is good, but in the end it's really just Copley's show.
When reading other reviews, it's interesting to see that people are pretty much in agreement about the film's specifics, it's only the ratings that are miles apart. No, the plot doesn't offer much to chew on. Yes, the cinematography is pretty chaotic and sure enough, there is hardly any time to catch your breath. But whether you end up hating it or enjoying it says more about you than it does about the film. I love the fact that Naishuller made a movie that doesn't waste too much time on pointless context, a film that doesn't feel it should slow down once in a while so everyone in the audience can catch up and tone down the violence, gore and gaming nods just to appeal to a larger audience. We have enough of those already, in fact, that's all we seem to have nowadays.
There's just one point where I don't agree with the majority of the reviews I've read. While it's true that Hardcore Henry originated out of the broader FPS genre, it doesn't feel like a mere game adaptation, nor should it be compared with them. Rather than translating a (fictitious) game franchise to the big screen, Naishuller looked at FPS games and extracted elements that would make the cinematic experience more intense. Hardcore Henry is 100% cinematic, not an interactive experience reimagined as a mere viewing experience. Which is exactly why Hardcore Henry is a great film where pretty much every other game adaptation is a waste of digital pellicule.
Hardcore Henry is a film with no noticeable compromises. I say noticeable, because with only 2 million dollars to spend there must have been quite a few limitations for Naishuller and his crew. What that means though is that unless you can stomach the continuous onslaught of action, there really isn't much else to enjoy. If you're prone to motion sickness, if you expect to be intellectually triggered or if you can't accept a little silliness, don't even bother. But if you're looking for one of the most immersive cinematic rides in ages, there isn't a single film that can top Hardcore Henry. One of my finest theater experiences in years. Maybe it'll take a year, maybe two, maybe even ten, but people will eventually start to copy Naishuller's approach, which is something I'm looking forward to very much.