Wednesday, April 13, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry was written and directed by Ilya Naishuller. 

This is Naishuller's first big screen film. He previously directed a couple of music videos for the Russian rock band Biting Elbows.

Hardcore Henry is a first person point-of-view film, as the audience experiences the action through the eyes of the mute, faceless protagonist as he shoots, stabs and jumps his way through endless set pieces. In effect, the audience is the star here. Unfortunately instead of being in control of the main character, we're merely along for the ride. The film accurately captures all the "fun" of watching someone else play a video game. It's like having a friend with a new PS4 who won't let you have a go at the controls.

The film's about as close to a live action video game as you can get. Every single video game element and cliche is here. There are endless corridors to navigate, abandoned buildings to explore, armies of faceless and easily killed goons and a universe of weapons lying around, complete with unlimited ammo. The only thing missing is the score in the upper right hand corner of the screen!

The entire "plot" of the movie is even structured exactly like a video game! There's the mandatory car chase, a quest to find a particular item, a visit to a brothel, an escort mission and even a super-powerful boss to fight at the end. There's even the equivalent of checkpoints in the film, and a NPC who pops up periodically to give Henry directions and help explain the so-called "plot!" And Henry's main motivation is to rescue the girl, a storyline that was old when Donkey Kong did it 1981!

It's a cinematic experiment that works, I suppose, although I'm not quite sure what it was attempting to prove. That it could be done? That the audience would sit still for anything? Your guess is as good as mine.

Hardcore Henry would probably have worked better as a short film, as ninety six minutes of plotless action is a bit too much to take. One can only watch Henry slaughter his way through various levels so many times before it starts to grow repetitive and stale. 

As you might imagine, elements like plot, characterization and logic take a hit in a film like this. There is the merest whisper of a story here, but it's pretty threadbare and only exists to bridge the action scenes together.

If you've ever watched a movie like Die Hard and thought, "This is OK, but I wish it didn't have all this boring drama, human interaction and characterization in it," then brother this is the film for you.

This isn't the first time Hollywood has dabbled in the first person POV technique. The 2005 movie Doom featured a five minute "BFG scene" that was filmed in first person, much like the video game of the same name. 1947 was apparently a big year for first person POV, as there were two movies filmed with the technique. Dark Passage starred Humphrey Bogart, and the entire first half of the movie was shot from his perspective. Then there was The Lady In The Lake, starring Robert Montgomery. It was shot entirely in the first person (thanks to reader Dr. OTR for jogging my memory about that last one). Hardcore Henry is probably the most elaborate film to used the technique though.

Supposedly many audience members complained of vertigo and motion sickness while watching the shaky-cam action scenes in the film. Eh, it didn't bother me, but I can see how it could affect some. I think it might depend on where you sit in the theater. I'm betting the closer you are to the screen, the more likely you are to hurl.


The Plot:
A man named Henry wakes up inside a strange lab, strapped to a table. He looks down and sees part of his left arm and leg are missing. A beautiful scientist named Estelle enters the lab. She tells Henry he was in a horrible accident and may be suffering from memory loss, and claims to be Henry's wife. She replaces his missing limbs with bionic ones, and is about to restore his voice when the lab is attacked. A group of mercenaries burst in, led by Akan, an albino man with telekinetic powers.

Henry and Estelle escape from Akan and run through a series of corridors. Henry's surprised to find they're really in an airplane, high above the ground (?). He and Estelle cram into an escape pod and blast out of the plane, landing in the middle of a Russian freeway. As Henry lies dazed, Estelle is abducted by more of Akan's men, who just happen to come along.

Suddenly a car drives up, and Henry's rescued by a man named Jimmy (played by Sharlto Copley). Jimmy tells Henry that his bionic parts are running down, and he'll die if he doesn't recharge (Wasn't he just activated? He must have a short battery life!). Jimmy's shot in the head and the car crashes. Henry dives into a bus to escape Akan's men. On the bus he meets another version of Jimmy, this one dressed as a homeless man. Homeless Jimmy gives Henry his first mission, to find an associate of Akan named Slick Dimitry. He says Henry will need to rip out Dimitry's heart to get to the power unit behind it (?), and use it to recharge his own parts. Sound logical to me! Suddenly the bus is stopped by yet another of Akan's men, this one wielding a flamethrower. He blasts the bus, killing Homeless Jimmy as  Henry barely escapes with his life.

Henry finds Slick Dimitry, who naturally isn't keen about having his heart ripped out. Henry chases him on foot (Parkour!) for several miles before finally catching him and obtaining the power unit. He then gets a call from Jimmy, saying to meet him in a nearby brothel. Inside the brothel Henry meets two more Jimmys— one a cocaine-addled horn dog, and the other a mild-mannered nerd. Nerd Jimmy inserts the power unit into Henry, recharging him. Just then the brothel's attacked by— you guessed it— more of Akan's men. Repetitive, isn't it? Henry's captured by Akan, who tosses him around with his telekinetic powers. Akan taunts Henry by telling him he has Estelle, and is transporting her by armored convoy to his compound. He then tosses Henry out the window.

Outside, Henry meets yet another jimmy, this one a Dennis Hopper-like hippie on a chopper. He gives Henry a ride on his bike and they miraculously catch up to Akan's convoy. Henry takes out all the vehicles in the convoy except the one containing Estelle. He jumps into the vehicle and just as he's about to rescue her, Akan appears and threatens her with a baseball bat. Henry tries to save her, and Akan smashes him in the head with the bat instead (Apparently Akan's a fan of The Walking Dead).

Henry wakes up in the woods, with his bionic eye hanging out. Easy Rider Jimmy fixes his eye before being killed by a tank. Henry enters the tank and kills the crew. He uses his phone, which amazingly still works, to follow Jimmy's signal to an abandoned hotel.

Inside he finds the original, or Prime Jimmy, who's confined to a wheelchair. Prime Jimmy explains that he worked for Akan, who was developing a super soldier program— the very program that created all of Henry's bionic parts. When the first batch of super soldiers failed, Akan snapped Prime Jimmy's spine in a fit of rage, leaving him a quadriplegic. Prime Jimmy then somehow created a series of clones of himself, and can inhabit and control their various bodies by using a special helmet. This explains why Henry keeps meeting various versions of Jimmy.

Suddenly Prime Jimmy causes his clones to attack Henry, believing he's working with Akan. He eventually realizes Henry's innocent, and Akan is monitoring his actions through his bionic eyes. Prime Jimmy gathers several of his clones to fight off Akan's troops. British Soldier Jimmy and Henry then get Prime Jimmy to safety.

The three drive to Akan's skyscraper. They battle their way through the lobby, but Prime Jimmy is wounded in the neck by a piece of shrapnel. He thanks Henry for being the closest thing he's ever had to a friend, and dies. Henry then battles his way up the skyscraper to Akan's office. There Akan congratulates Henry for making it this far, and says he's his first successful super soldier. From now on, all of Akan's super soldiers will have Henry's memories uploaded to their brains. He then plans to unleash an army of Henrys to destroy the world and rebuild it in his image.

Akan's army of super soldiers then wakes up and chases Henry to the roof of the skyscraper. There's yet another huge battle, as Henry manages to take them all out with guns, grenades and fists. Akan uses his power to knock Henry out. When he wakes up, he sees Estelle. She says she's really (GASP!) Akan's wife, and has been lying to him the whole time as part of his programming. Henry freaks out and attacks Akan, eventually killing him by pulling out his bionic eye and decapitating him with the cord (!). He jumps into Estelle's chopper and tosses Akan's head to her. She shoots at him, but the bullet ricochets off his bionic hand and wounds her. She staggers through the chopper and falls out the door, hanging on by her fingertips. She begs for Henry to save her, but he slams the door shut on her fingers, and she falls to her death. 

And Henry lived happily ever after, I guess. The End.

• There's really not a lot to discuss here. The movie's pretty much just one long action scene, with little or no plot to speak of. That makes it pretty hard to critique.

• When Henry first wakes up in the lab, Estelle fusses over him and attaches his bionic limbs. This is all very reminiscent of the lab scene in the original Robocop, in which Bob Morton and his team are discussing Alex Murphy's condition while he looks on.

I guess there are only so many ways to film a guy being rebuilt with bionic parts in a lab.

• The film was shot almost entirely with the GoPro Hero 3 camera, which is available at your local electronics store for around $250. Amazing!

• Supposedly twelve different stuntmen played the part of "Henry" in the film. Each wore a specially built rig on their face, with cameras just below their eyes. 

There was a good amount of CGI in the movie of course— mostly to erase safety wires and lights that were caught by the cameras. Naishuller insisted on filming as many of the stunts as practically as possible.

Given the huge amount of stunt work, it's amazing there were no major injuries or even deaths. A large part of the movie was actually filmed in Russia, where safety regulations reportedly aren't as strict. Supposedly the only injuries suffered by the stuntmen were six stitches an one chipped tooth.

• There are eleven different versions of Jimmy in the film. There's Driver Jimmy, Homeless Jimmy, Coke-Head Jimmy, Nerd Jimmy,  Easy Rider Jimmy, Prime Jimmy, Lab Jimmy, Punk Rocker Jimmy, British Soldier Jimmy, Top Hat Jimmy and Commando Jimmy.

• Henry seems to require a lot of recharging. Minutes after he's activated he's told he needs to recharge or die. And even though the story takes place more or less in real time, an hour later he needs to recharge again. Jesus, what is he, my smart phone?

• A couple of times Henry used his real right hand to smash glass or doors. Shouldn't he have used the bionic one, so he doesn't end up with a hand full of shattered bones?

• Prime Jimmy explains that after he was paralyzed, he created a series of clone "avatars" he can control with his mind.

Just how the hell did he manage to do that? He's confined to a wheelchair, much like Stephen Hawking. He had to have some major help with that project— we're talking scores of people here. For some reason he never mentions any such team or what happened to them after the project was over. Maybe he slaughtered them when the project was complete, like the Pharaohs of old.

• When Henry injects himself with adrenaline and becomes a super-powered, one-man army, I defy anyone to not think of Popeye eating spinach.

• As Henry's fighting his way through the abandoned hotel, he throws a grenade down a stairwell. It blows a soldier into the air, who utters the Wilhelm Scream as he dies. 

Sigh… it's really time we retired that sound effect. It was fun the first 47,000 times I heard it, but it's become massively overused at this point, and takes me right out of the movie every time I hear it.

• Why does Akan need an army of super soldiers when he has such formidable telekinetic powers? Couldn't he just take over the planet by tossing various world leaders around like rag dolls, until they yell "uncle?"

• I'm fuzzy on the Akan's plan. As near as I can tell, he's trying to create an army of super soldiers who will do his bidding, so he can take over the world. So far the soldiers have been a bust, presumably because they lack sufficient incentive. Akan gets a brainstorm— he implants the memory of a wife into Henry's mind and then pretends to kidnap her. This motivates Henry to fight his way through any and all obstacles to get her back, making him the first successful super soldier.

Is that it? Did I get it right?

Hardcore Henry is an action packed, first person POV, live action video game. It's an interesting experiment, but unfortunately grows dull and repetitive pretty quickly. A bit more plot couldn't have hurt. I give it a C+.


  1. The 1947 film Lady in the Lake, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery, is told entirely from the perspective of Philip Marlowe. The only time you ever see him is once or twice when he glances into a mirror. Otherwise you only see his hands.

  2. THAT'S the other one I was trying to think of. I knew there was another famous first person POV film out there, but couldn't remember the name. Thanks for that! I'll update and give you credit.


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