Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Non-Stop Bloody Brutal Violence and Mayhem, Language throughout, Sexual Content/Nudity and Drug Use
Directed by: Ilya Naishuller
Written by: Ilya Naishuller
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth, Andrei Dementiev & Cyrus Arnold
HARDCORE HENRY is an independent Russian action film that was born of a music video (Bad Motherfucker by Biting Elbows) and funded through an Indiegogo campaign. It was then filmed with a dozen GoPro cameras, a hundred stunt people, and lots of special effects. This seemed like an ambitious project that was destined to debut on video-on-demand, but the movie gods smiled upon HARDCORE HENRY and it’s been graced with a nationwide theatrical release. Part of the reasoning behind this decision revolves around HARDCORE’s interesting gimmick of being told entirely from a first-person point-of-view. This is essentially a live-action video game on the big screen. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but also comes with a couple of big problems that keep it from being as awesome as it probably should have been.
You are Henry. After an unseen violent encounter, you wake up in a strange laboratory to find that you’ve been healed with superhuman cybernetic limbs. Before you can fully adjust to your new body (not yet fitted with a voice box), telekinetic villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) bursts into the facility and begins killing people left and right. You and Estelle (your wife, played by Haley Bennett) board an escape pod, but crash into a busy highway. After Akan’s mercenaries kidnap her, you find yourself on a dangerous quest to get your beloved wife back. Throughout your journey, you’ll be aided by a colorful individual known as Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). It also goes without saying that you’ll leave a high body count in your wake.
Of course, HARDCORE HENRY’s main hook is the unique first person perspective. HENRY isn’t necessarily the first film to do this (2013’s MANIAC remake, 1947’s film noir LADY IN THE LAKE), but it’s probably the first action-packed adventure to take this approach. If you can handle motion sickness (this is on the same level as your average found footage movie) and love goofy action B-flicks, you’ll likely be entertained. I’m honestly surprised that this movie got away from the MPAA with an R rating. There’s definitely a borderline NC-17 level of violence here, but that’s not a complaint. It’s one of the goriest wide releases since 2012’s DREDD and 2010’s PIRANHA. Thugs are shredded through fans, heads are blown in half, bodies explode, and gallons of blood flood a massive final showdown.
The flimsy storyline basically serves as an excuse to jump from one carnage-filled confrontation to another. While that’s not necessarily a terrible thing considering the gimmick and over-the-top tone of this film, it does transform into a noticeable annoyance when the script becomes so convoluted that it simply can’t make sense of itself. Director/writer Ilya Naishuller admitted in the film’s Q&A session that long sections of the movie were pretty much made up as they went along. Boy, does it show. The plot has lots of cool ideas, but can’t make sense of them in a coherent screenplay. I found myself sitting back and enjoying the first-person action, while simultaneously trying to block out just how stupid the story was.
Bad writing isn’t HENRY’s only big problem though. The acting ranges in being varying degrees of bad across the board. I wasn’t expecting this film to have a pinnacle of award-winning performances, but you (as the silent Henry) give the best performance in this film from your theater seat. At least, Sharlto Copley seems to be having fun in the many colorful roles of Jimmy (a hippie, a hobo, a coke head, an overly polite general, etc.). Haley Bennett’s Estelle is a wooden damsel-in-distress, while Tim Roth pops in briefly to deliver one bad-ass line of dialogue. The worst performance in the entire film comes from Danila Kozlovsky as the psychic Akan, who frequently attempts to be funny and falls flat with every single line. Like I said, first-person POV Henry gives the best performance in this film (and he was played by fourteen different stunt people, not including the audience).
HARDCORE HENRY will definitely appeal towards those who don’t necessarily need a plot to go along with their bloody action. In spite of my complaints, I had fun watching this film. However, I just wish (much like the director) that more preparation had gone into the story and project as a whole. HENRY’s unbelievably cool technical skills are unworthy of the mediocre writing and bad acting. HARDCORE HENRY probably has potential as a future cult classic for its sheer absurdity and balls-to-the-wall attitude. It’s a film that’s every bit as entertaining as it is stupid. If you feel like slaying hordes of Russian bad guys in creatively bloody ways, going head to head with a tank, plummeting from a helicopter, and doing other cool, violent things from the safety of your movie theater seat, then you’ve probably already made up your mind to see/become HARDCORE HENRY!