For years, video games have stolen characters, imagery and set pieces from cinema (I’m looking’ at you DEAD SPACE!); with this week’s HARDCORE HENRY, the film industry is striking back. Director Ilya Nashuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov (auteur of the awesome NIGHT WATCH series) team up to create the first action flick shot entirely with a subjective camera. So, does it work? And will gamers, used to controlling said camera, approve?
The film starts off with a bang when Henry (played by…us?) is woken up by his scientist lover Estelle (Haley Bennett) to realize he has no memory. It’s quickly deduced that he’ll have to regain his identity (which includes his voice; Henry is virtually speechless for much of the movie) and take down a warlord who plans to bio-engineer soldiers. If you’re even a casual gamer, all of this will feel oddly familiar. Even still, Naishuller does a great job of using the contained POV perspective to surprise the audience with both humor and spectacle. Most fans of HALO and CALL OF DUTY should eat up this opening sequence for the mirroring of said games’ intros, even if they can’t control the outcome.
The rest of the story follows the traditional chase-film/take-down-the-baddies/save-my-girl structure, but there are indeed fun surprises along the way. HARDCORE HENRY is one of the most un-PC films I’ve seen in awhile, where anything goes when it come to sex, violence, and foul language. Unlike most of the wooden acting in video games, the performances here are surprisingly fun and unpredictable. With his ever-changing looks and accents, Sharlto Copley (DISTRICT 9) steals the show as Jimmy, a mysterious ally to Henry, whose erratic appearances ultimately add some emotional stakes as the film winds down. Bonus points should be given to the filmmakers for the eclectic music choices sprinkled throughout the film. HARDCORE HENRY knows it’s purpose: to entertain; and it uses all of it’s assets to the max.
Many have questioned the use of a first person shooter film, when the gaming industry produces so many choices within this genre each year. However, if you saw 2007’s SHOOT ‘EM UP and thought it might be cool to see that film through Clive Owen’s eyes, then HARDCORE HENRY is for you. It succeeds because of it’s technical marvel in making us believe all of this is really happening—to us! These aren’t pixelated explosions, or 16-bit protagonists; they’re the real deal. And seeing your favorite archetypal video game sequence portrayed within the physics of real life keeps the film as fun and engaging as a video game.
Ultimately, HENRY is well produced and a necessary step forward in the land of found-footage filmmaking. Nashuller solves a common found-footage complaint: “Why the hell is someone still filming in the middle of a war zone/alien invasion/paranormal attack” by making the camera our eyes to the world. And if you thought the extended one-take action sequences in THE REVENANT and CHILDREN OF MEN were impressive, your jaw will likely drop at some of the wizardry it took to string this one together. As a fun experiment, HARDCORE HENRY works. It may lack depth and resonance, but the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a hero we barely hear or see onscreen; we’re HENRY, and we’re pretty badass.
HARDCORE HENRY is being released in theaters this Friday by STX Entertainment, who, between this fall’s THE GIFT and the forthcoming FREE STATE OF JONES, deserves to be singled out for betting on exciting new filmmakers working in the type of quality midsize films the big studio’s now ignore.