You might have heard “Hardcore Henry” being hailed as “the future of action movies.” God, I hope not. The film wants to take you on a roller coaster ride, but you just want to get off. It wants to titillate, but it disgusts. It wants to thrill you, but it makes you nauseous. (Seriously, this film gave me my first experience with motion sickness. I guess that’s an accomplishment.) That nausea is be due to both the film’s form and its reprehensibly vicious, callous and sexist content.
Expanding on two short films writer/director Ilya Naishuller created for YouTube, the main draw of those shorts — and “Hardcore Henry” — is that they’re shot from the perspective of a wordless protagonist. It’s as if you were able to watch “Die Hard” or a James Bond film from the viewpoint of John McClane or Agent 007. The obvious and intended comparison point is video games, specifically first-person shooters. It creates the feeling of a video game that you watch instead of play.
Henry (not really played by an actor, the audience is Henry, really) awakens in a facility where his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is bringing him back to life through advanced technology, turning him into a cyborg super-soldier. The action begins when Estelle is kidnapped by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), and Henry gives chase.
Henry meets up with a man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who helps him along the way. That’s about as far as I can get with the synopsis — not because of spoilers, but because that’s really all the story there is. But that’s by design. The writing is not impressive in terms of plotting or dialogue, but that’s not the main draw of the film.
But 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. The film would have undoubtedly benefited from a more engaging plot — but only slightly.
Naishuller, I will concede, has come up with an interesting idea in theory: 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;
“Hardcore Henry” 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, so we’re just confused amid 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 video games. Taking artistic inspiration from games and utilizing their mechanics in a cinematic format is a worthy concept, but Naishuller doesn’t adapt them, doesn’t re-write the rules of games for film. He just lazily cuts and pastes.
Unfortunately, other ugly elements of video game culture got dragged in to this film along with the aesthetics. This film displays some of the most reprehensibly disgusting intolerance I’ve seen in any medium in quite some time. Most of this is directed toward women. Henry’s sexism and misogyny is downright vile, and female characters are less than one-dimensional and are mainly eye candy. There’s a gratuitous strip club scene that serves no apparent reason other than to have a cadre of naked women on screen. Even the most prominent female character, Estelle, serves as little more than romantic motivation for Henry. There are even some snippits of homophobia thrown in for good measure. This is one of the rare cases where I’m glad that there were no people of color in a 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. I’ve seen many films and played many video games that were incredibly violent. Many critics and audiences claim that these films and games glorify violence. Most of the time I disagree with them. Works like “A Clockwork Orange,” the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise and Quentin Tarantino’s entire filmography 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 that overtly glorifies violence in all forms.
This movie is atrocious. It’s one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie. I’m hoping 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.