If you’ve heard anything about Hardcore Henry, you might have read it’s being hailed as “the future of action movies.” God, I hope not. Henry hopes to take you on a roller coaster ride, but it’s one you immediately want to get off. It wants to titillate, but instead it disgusts. It wants to thrill you, but instead it makes you nauseous (seriously, this film gave me my first experience with motion sickness. I guess that’s an accomplishment). Though that nausea may be due in equal parts to the film’s form, but also to its reprehensibly vicious, callous and sexist content.
Henry (not really played by any actor, the audience is Henry) awakens in a facility where his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is bringing him back to life through robotics technology, turning him into a cyborg super-soldier. Soon the villain, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) kidnaps Estelle and forces Henry to go on the run. Henry meets up with a man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who helps him along the way to rescue his wife. That’s about as far along as I can get, not because of spoilers, but because that’s really all the story there is, though that’s by design. The writing is really not impressive in terms of plotting or dialogue, but that’s not the main draw of Henry. It’s not really fair to say the story just moves from one set-piece/action sequence to another, since the whole movie is essentially a showy action set-piece, although I wont deny the film would have undoubtedly benefited from a more engaging plot, but only slightly.
Expanding on two short films writer/director Ilya Naishuller created for YouTube, the main draw of those shorts and Henry is that they’re shot from the perspective of the silent protagonist, like if you were able to watch Die Hard or a James Bond film from the physical viewpoint of John McClane or 007 himself. The obvious, and intended, comparison point to this is video games, specifically first-person shooters, the whole intent being create a video game that you watch instead of play. Naishuller, I will concede, has come up with an interesting idea in theory: to take the mechanics and traits of one medium and apply them to another. But his execution of this idea shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both video games and cinema.
Unfortunately, the languages of the two art forms don’t translate well in this case, and it waters down what’s great about both. It doesn’t work as a movie because it devolves into chaos cinema. We can’t get our bearings visually and so we’re just confused amidst all this mayhem. And we’re not interacting with the world or controlling where we go, so we don’t have the satisfaction of participation that’s so crucial to games. And again, taking artistic inspiration from games and utilizing their mechanics in a cinematic format is far from a bad idea. But Naishuller doesn’t adapt them, doesn’t re-write the rules of games, for film, he just lazily cuts and pastes.
The poor story, first-person perspective and reliance on ridiculous, frenetic action sequences are some already mentioned points that remind me of games. Unfortunately, other uglier elements of video games and their culture got dragged in too. First off, the vast majority of the film is a display of the most reprehensibly disgusting intolerance I’ve seen in any medium in quite some time. Most of this is directed toward women, as Henry’s sexism and misogyny is downright vile, with women who are less than one-dimensional and are mainly eye candy. There’s a rather gratuitous scene that takes place in a strip club for no apparent reason other than to have an excuse to have a cadre of naked women running around. Even the most prominent female character, Estelle, serves as little more than romantic motivation for Henry. I imagine someone from the middle ages would even find this unrepentant chauvinism archaic. There are even some snatches of homophobia thrown in for good measure, so as to offend even more people. This is one of the rare cases where I’m glad that there were no people of color in a mainstream film. Who knows what kind of regressive depiction they might have received in this fascistic straight-white-male fantasy/nightmare.
Additionally, the film has a morally objectionable relationship with violence. Now I’ve seen many films and played many video games that were incredibly violent, that critics and audiences claimed glorified violence. Most of the time I would disagree with them, since works like A Clockwork Orange, the Grand Theft Auto series, and Quentin Tarantino’s entire filmography (the most notable examples) have a satirical edge to them, an accusatory nudge that makes you question if and why you’re enjoying this. Hardcore Henry has no such nudge. This is a film, plain and simple, that glorifies violence of all forms.
This movie is atrocious, one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie, and probably just in life. Hopefully, this is not the “the future” of movies as so many foolish cultural commentators are claiming. If we’re lucky, Hardcore Henry will be buried in the annals of film history, never to be heard from again. Fueling this hope, is the film’s box office. It’s thankfully failing and few people are going out to see it. Please, let’s keep it that way.