It’s often a derogatory phrase to say that a film looks like a video game, though this is usually directed at a critic’s distaste for CGI graphics and their inability to emulate reality. However, I can’t really think of a film that actually looked like a video game; it isn’t as if the Super Mario Brothers movie was shot like the hallway scene from Oldboy, as the titular characters platformed their way through obstacles. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that a film would attempt this sort of stylistic choice, and the advent of the GoPro makes the first-person shooter the perfect genre to test out the translation of video game action into a cinematic format. Enter Hardcore Henry, an experimental film that takes its stab at this conceit by placing its audience in the role of the titular character.
You are Henry. You wake up with no memory and no voice as a woman claiming to be your wife attaches cybernetic limbs to where your original limbs used to be. As she orients you to your surroundings, a villainous crime lord with psychic powers abducts her so that he may build an army of similar cyborg warriors. With the help of a constantly respawning sidekick named Jimmy (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), you must fight through waves of Russian thugs to keep yourself alive and save your wife.
Narratively, the film has a lot of fun with its first-person perspective, addressing issues of identity and the nature of the shared theatrical experience by speaking to the audience directly. The plot is kept video game simple, but to pretty neat effect as the story elements converge in ways to turn what would normally be strange cinematic choices, like Jimmy’s seemingly endless supply of lives, into a comical experience that can only work if one accepts that this film runs on video game logic. Yet, in no way does it exhibit even the pretense of being a thoughtful meditation on the film medium (as the script’s unfortunate number of Neanderthalic homophobic jabs should indicate), nor does it need to be, as it doesn’t even try to make the first person shots seem continuous, constantly cutting in ways to make the action more intense.
That intensity, though, is both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness, depending on who you are. There are some very fun and inventively violent action setpieces in this film, and some of the film’s best shots will remain lodged in my brain from how exhilaratingly fun they were. After all, that’s what you’re paying admission to see, and this film certainly delivers on that front. However, there were an equal number of shots that will likely distress those with weaker stomachs: not because of the blood and viscera, but because the camera shakes around just as much as a real person’s would in during a combative confrontation. This isn’t really an issue during the shooting sections of the film, but early on there are a lot of scenes with hand-to-hand combat and parkour acrobatics that were nauseating to experience in a darkened theater with no point of reference to give the eyes something solid to focus on.
Perhaps it’s best to think of Hardcore Henry as more of an experience than a movie, something akin to a theme park ride. Despite the motion sickness I felt after walking out of my screening, I can definitely recommend it for those who can take ninety minutes of intense camera movement, and even those on the fence should know that the worst of it is over by the halfway point. I doubt the experience will translate as well to the small screen, but if your gut’s temperament is anything like mine, it might be worth the wait. It’s an interesting experiment that is largely successful and a lot of fun, even if you have to deal with some gay jokes and some equally nauseating camerawork every once in a while to get to the good stuff.