Film review: Hardcore Henry engages the viewer as a co-star

Sharlto Copley stars in Hardcore Henry, a Russian-American action film shot almost entirely with a GoPro camera, and inspired by hard-rock music videos and gaming. Photo: STX Productions Sharlto Copley stars in Hardcore Henry, a Russian-American action film shot almost entirely with a GoPro camera, and inspired by hard-rock music videos and gaming. Photo: STX Productions

You may have noticed that when many reviews compare a given movie to a video game, it’s rarely in a positive light. You may have also noticed that when this comparison is made, the reviewer has little, if any, experience with games, instead using the reference as a shorthand way of saying it’s all flash and no cinematic substance. The good news is that you can easily dismiss any criticism that leans on such an empty jab. The bad news is that it isn’t going away anytime soon, and will no doubt become particularly tiresome when reading reviews of Ilya Naishuller’s first-person shoot-em-up, Hardcore Henry, which owes as much to Robert Rodriguez and Russian parkour videos as it does to Call of Duty.

Hardcore Henry is shot, edited and even plotted similarly to the work that put Naishuller on the map, the viral hit music video for “Bad Motherfucker” by his own band, Biting Elbows (whose songs feature heavily on the soundtrack). The plot somersaults along steadily enough as connective tissue between action sequences, a paint-by-numbers narrative about genetically engineered supersoldiers and private militias led by a colorful villain, but it’s all in service to the big conceit of the insanity: The entire movie is filmed by a stuntman-cameraman with a GoPro strapped to his head. Every punch thrown, every bullet fired, every death-defying leap happens right in front of your eyeballs.

Had Hardcore Henry been filmed conventionally, it would no doubt be the worst movie of 2016 thus far. The plot is preposterous, the bad guy is insufferable and there is not a single plot device or set piece that you haven’t seen a million times in straight-to-DVD actioners starring a slumming Dolph Lundgren. It is certainly self-aware and there are laughs, but they’re few and far between (and most often due to a delightful, beyond-committed turn by Sharlto Copley). The perspective is the whole reason for this genre exercise, as well as the chief motivation for the lead, as much as there is one. If we were watching this from a third-person point of view, we wouldn’t care in the least. When we’re sharing a set of eyes with the hero, we understand the impulse to act immediately in response to a threat we don’t yet understand. It’s what you, the viewer, would do, so it’s what you, the vicarious protagonist, actually do.

Naishuller’s outsider perspective on American film tropes is as Russian as Pierre Morel’s and Luc Besson’s are in Taken. It takes place in Moscow and partially the Russian countryside with villains and bystanders, in nouveau riche nightclubs filled with tattooed baddies, and it pulls off spectacular parkour in the hollowed out shells of Soviet architecture. Whether intentional or not, Hardcore Henry is a fascinating reimagining of the impossibly strong and capable lone wolf hero of American action films with another nation’s values as garnish. To criticize the film as derivative is to ignore American cinema’s role in influencing the world, positively and negatively.

The question with Hardcore Henry isn’t whether it’s good. It’s whether it would have been possible to make a film with this one-and-only trick up its sleeve any better. If this sounds like the kind of movie you’d rather skip, you’re probably right. If you think you’d dig it, you’ve proactively already bought your ticket.

Hardcore Henry

R, 96 minutes

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