Director: Ilya Naishuller
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth, Andrei Dementiev, Svetlana Ustinova, Darya Charusha
MPAA Rating: (for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 4/8/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 7, 2016
Now that someone has made an action movie shot entirely from the first-person perspective of the hero with Hardcore Henry, let it first and foremost serve as a lesson for any filmmaker who might think of following in the movie's frantic footsteps. If we take the movie as a baseline for the gimmick, the first question a filmmaker in such a position should ask is pretty simple: "Am I sure about this?"
I would hate to be as stringent as setting down a hard and fast rule that filmmakers shouldn't entertain an option of form, but maybe it has come to it. I've seen a few instances of movies breaking into first-person perspective, typically in the style of the shooter video games that they're clearly trying to emulate with the technique, and it has rarely, if ever, worked.
The temporary moments of flourish take us out of the story. We're no longer allowed to observe a character, since we, essentially, become the character. It works in video games, where the interactive nature of the medium means that the illusion is at least tenable to a certain degree. In a movie, we obviously have no control. There's no potential for the illusion of experiencing events vicariously through the character, which seems to be the only reason anyone would think to shoot a scene or, in this case, an entire movie in such a way.
It adds nothing of value but eliminates a lot that is essential. First and foremost is our capacity for empathizing with a character. Here, the central character, whose perspective we take, is Henry ("played" by a collection of stunt men who, as far as I can tell, don't even get credit with the rest of the cast). Henry is a test subject in a laboratory hovering in a dirigible in the skies above Russia. He awakens in a vat of liquid with tubes connected to his body, and then Estelle (Haley Bennett), his wife, proceeds to implant him with a prosthetic arm and leg.
Who is Henry? He's not any of us in the audience, obviously, and we in the audience are certainly not him. What we know is that he is an experiment, that he had an experience with bullies as a kid, and that his father (Tim Roth) may have done something to help make him into the man of violence who shows himself later. How does he react to any of what unfolds? It's impossible to tell, because we never see him, save for a single, broken-up shot of his reflection near the end. Writer/director Ilya Naishuller doesn't even give the character a voice (again, in the traditional mode of the video games the movie is attempting to ape). Henry communicates via head movements and hand gestures.
He escapes after the facility is attacked by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who has telekinetic powers and is building an army for vaguely nefarious purposes. Why does he have telekinetic powers? Who knows? Why does a villain with telekinetic powers need an army of cyborgs? Your guess is as good as mine.
On the ground, Akan captures Estelle, and Henry gets help evading Akan's goons from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who is killed repeatedly and keeps coming back in different forms (a homeless man, a cocaine addict, a British colonel, a camouflaged sniper, etc.). This is explained eventually. It doesn't matter, and neither, really, does anything else here.
The plot, then, follows Henry as he tracks down Akan based on Jimmy's information, delivered by way of handy maps on a cellphone. It leads him from one action sequence to the next. There's something to the idea that seeing these stunts performed from the perspective of the stunt man/men performing them could be fun. Naishuller and his team of three cinematographers (Pasha Kapinos, Vsevolod Kaptur, and Fedor Lyass) ensure that it isn't. They've chosen (or have been constrained by budgetary restrictions) to capture the entire thing on digital cameras that render everything blocky, jittery, and blurry. The confined field of vision that comes from the first-person technique already limits the capacity to communicate any form of structure to or spatial relationships within the action sequences. The technical side of the filmmaking only makes it worse, as the constantly moving camera shakes to and fro (If this is how human vision worked, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed without feeling the need to vomit).
Most of these sequences, then, turn into indecipherable blurs punctuated by shots of bloody, brutal violence. Naishuller makes sure we see those moments, because that's the real point of Hardcore Henry, an ugly and empty-headed excuse for a gimmick disguised as a movie.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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