It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film as divisive as Hardcore Henry—out of its US premiere during the 2016 SXSW Film Festival, it seemed like folks either loved it or downright hated it. Since I was already on board with the project after learning the premise and seeing filmmaker Ilya Naishuller’s first-person POV approach in recent trailers, I had a freaking blast with Hardcore Henry, as it felt like the movie Doom had wanted to be years ago. It may not be “high art” (according to some, at least), but for me, it was a jaw-dropping experience that had precisely everything I wanted from it.
The plot to Hardcore Henry is a bit paper-thin, admittedly; the film’s hero, Henry (or the audience, really), wakes up in a laboratory with his doting wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) hovering over him and explaining that he had been put back together after an incident and is now partially made of robotic parts, which was the only way they could save his life. As Henry is getting reoriented back into his existence, the lab is attacked by a maniacal overlord named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), who also happens to wield the power of telekinesis over everyone around him. Estelle is nabbed by Akan and his thugs, and it’s up to Henry to get acclimated quickly so that he can save his beloved’s life, receiving help along the way from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a former scientist who worked for Akan and wants nothing more than to stop his ex-boss once and for all.
As someone who relishes watching my significant other play video games and really appreciates the medium as its own form of visual storytelling, I thought what Naishuller achieves with Hardcore Henry is rather incredible, especially on a technical level. By shooting the film on various GoPro rigs, Naishuller puts viewers squarely in the middle of the action, making it feel like you’re watching a live-action video game unfold right before you on the big screen. It’s an impressively immersive approach that often had my jaw agape, as some of the shots Naishuller manages to achieve in Hardcore Henry were absolutely astounding. I know some people had concerns over whether or not this first-person style would make viewers sick, but I didn’t have a single problem, and I was one of the lame audience members who actually got nauseous during the original Cloverfield.
Even the way Naishuller sets everything up in Hardcore Henry feels precisely like a video game; we start off with the “orientation period,” as Estelle fills in the blanks for Henry (and us) on what he can and cannot do and who he can and cannot trust—similar to what gamers experience when they embark on a new journey and must learn the game’s mechanics, abilities of their character, and even the storyline.
As he makes his way through Moscow, Henry is accompanied by Copley’s character, Jimmy, who becomes his guide and provides Henry with various objectives and lessons to help him as he continues to hunt down Akan and his missing wife. Jimmy isn’t your normal tour guide by any means, and while I won’t ruin any surprises about his character, I will say that he has a few tricks up his many sleeves. Copley, an actor I have adored for some time, adds a lot of energy and unexpected fun to Hardcore Henry.
The finale even feels plucked right out of a game, when Henry must square off against Akan on the rooftop of a high-rise, complete with floating bodies and a crazy helicopter sequence. Naishuller adds a nice touch by having Henry use a first-aid pack before his big battle—a moment I really loved since you see that happen a lot whenever you’re gaming for real.
Hardcore Henry isn’t going to be a movie for everyone and honestly, I’m perfectly fine with that. If you’ve seen even one trailer for this film, then you know you’re either on board with it or you’re not. It’s made for a particular audience and for that audience, Hardcore Henry delivers a truly innovative and immersive experience that’s also a wicked amount of fun.
Movie Score: 3.5/5