movie review: Hardcore Henry (2016)

What did movie did I watch? The 2016 action movie Hardcore Henry

…um, is it noir? What? No.

Um…is it…hardcore…seeeex? NO.

Hardcore Henry is definitely a unique film, for a couple reasons. It’s one of the few first person movies, or at least one that’s not set up as a documentary like The Blair Witch Project. I can’t think of many where the camera is the stand in for the protagonist or functions as an acknowledged cast member or presence in the story. I can think of two movies off the top of my head: the adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel, The Lady In The Lake, and the found footage monster movie Cloverfield. Would the latter qualify in a category with Blair Witch Project? Probably not worth contemplating in a review of this movie. What makes Hardcore Henry unique? It delivers on the action that it’s promised, a movie marketed as a first person video game you don’t play, while also falling short of a real story arc for the protagonist that is no deeper than a video game cutscene.

I was entertained but a little soured because I have QUESTIONS. Granted, there’s a setup that explains why things will be the way they’ll be in the movie, such as the protagonist’s voice: Henry is a resurrected man with some bionic updates to take on some kind of gang villain named Akan, and before Henry can be given a simulated voice, Akan’s gang attacks. Welp, that’s why everyone will talk to you, the camera, Henry, and there’s no questioning anything or contemplation on the scenarios that Henry is tested in. And the movie moves quickly enough that Henry won’t have time to ask questions.  He’s given hints and updates and directions by Jimmy, a seemingly infinite NPC who reappears after nearly action beat before being killed off forcing Henry to run and shoot and parkour across Russia, a playground for competing bioscientists who are building armies of slightly indestructible clones or supersoldiers or even a psychokinetic character and THAT’S where I have the questions.

To the movie’s credit, it drops you in a world where there’s a guy, the villain Akan, who can lift things (mostly people) with his mind, and then just keeps moving. Hey, there you go, bad guy has mental powers. Okay, but this isn’t addressed in the rest of the world. Henry can’t ask WHY and his perpetual NPC guide Jimmy doesn’t ever add anything to how such a thing developed in this story, other than that Akan once hired him to build undead supersoldiers, to which original Jimmy protested and Akan crippled him. So, how much time passed before wheelchair bound Jimmy built his clones? And during that time, why didn’t Akan unleash his soldiers on the populace? You never see Henry (not counting a flashback where he’s lectured by his father, which again is not deep insight to anything) so, other than action, you never see him react to this news other than with some hand gestures and, well, shooting. He doesn’t even look around to check his surroundings, (the camera) becomes static as Jimmy or someone else talks and then some crazy action interrupts and Henry’s off to fight and shoot some more. And while there’s Jimmy and Henry’s wife, the scientist Estelle, to provide some exposition, there’s no bits where Henry stops to read a newspaper or catch a news broadcast or any other kind of movie trope where a character can get more exposition where his or Akan’s activities that day would make the news, that sort of thing.

I thought you said this movie delivers. Oh, the action, heck yeah. And because of the first person narrative, the punches and kicks and shooting packs a wallop. There’s some surprises right off the bat with an escape from the lab Henry is revived in, and maybe a big fight at the end seems like overkill, it’s still pretty wild (imagine the infinite Agent Smith vs Neo fight in Matrix 2 but interesting). There’s some PLOT TWISTS that you can roll your eyes over, and if all of this is some kind of test on Henry, that seems like a bit much to put everyone through. Maybe if you’re a comic book villain like Akan, so what. (For me, when I watch a movie where there’s a villain and he starts dispatching his own people, or creates an elaborate plan where many of his employees are violently killed off and then he’s like IT WAS ALL MY PLAN, how does he keep employing people? Who sticks around a company like that?) Because Henry can’t truly interact, he can only observe or listen before reacting (violently, but to violent situations), so, who is he? He can’t even verbalize to you, the viewer, that’s he’s not a pawn in a game.

Actions speak louder than words. Sure, but something other than a flashback of Henry’s dad to tell us what kind of person Henry is or was. I guess the plot is that he’s a man on a mission to survive, and never given a chance to know who he really was before any “plot twists.”

Was it good? It was okay. Yes, those action beats are impressive, so kudos. And it moves quickly, it’s never boring. It’s just not that deep. “things happen” and keep happening. Good thing they happen well.

The movie was conceived and directed by Ilya Naishuller, who would come back a few years later with the Bob Odenkirk action movie Nobody. He’s a more-than-competent filmmaker, so hopefully someone gives him a script soon that is more than just some amazing fights.

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