Film and gaming clash: a two-sided ‘Hardcore Henry’ review

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Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment "You" hanging on for dear life in "Hardcore Henry."

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment "You" hanging on for dear life in "Hardcore Henry."
Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment
“You” hanging on for dear life in “Hardcore Henry.”

Our cinephile culture editor and our game-loving news editor review a film that mixes both mediums: the first-person action comedy ‘Hardcore Henry.”

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Real Three Stars

Jason Wiese | Culture Editor
Friday, April 8; 11 a.m.

History has proven that film and video games are two mediums that do not mix very well. Not many can name a feature length adaptation of a popular game that left critics or audiences satisfied and very few games based on movies have reached the success level of their source material. I am purely a cinema enthusiast who does not frequently indulge in video games so someone like me would expect a film that feels like a video game to be a very jarring and alienating experience.

“Hardcore Henry,” an action thriller from first-time writer-director Ilya Naishuller, told entirely from a first-person perspective, is such a film. Did I feel alienated? Thoroughly. Did I still have a good time? Yes, quite a bit.

The story begins with “you” (since the title character is essentially the window through which the audience experiences what takes place and without any credited actor in the role, I will just refer to Henry as if he is “you”) waking up with no memory of your past or the ability to speak. Estelle (Haley Bennett), a scientist who apparently “built” you, fills you in on your name, your purpose and your marriage to her. Once your character is established, an inexplicably supernatural villain named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) with motivations for evildoing that are even more confusing, appears out of thin air to kidnap Estelle. After failing to rescue her and barely escaping, you are randomly saved by a man named Jimmy (South African actor Sharlto Copley, who, despite an accent that can be difficult to digest, is the real star of the show). Jimmy is already fully aware of all the trouble you are in and immediately offers his assistance, thus initiating the non-stop, tremulous, incomprehensible roller coaster of carnage that follows.

I approached “Hardcore Henry” intrigued by its concept, anticipating it to be an action film with cinematography in the vein of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s seamlessly shot “Birdman.” I soon came to realize that my preempted comparison is more wrong than it is simply weak. The film, shot almost entirely with the use of a GoPro camera, is essentially a video game that renders the need to push buttons on a controller unnecessary. You live (just barely) through an entire day that is condensed into 96 minutes, with cuts between scenes that are either blatantly obvious or attempt to remain hidden through the pixelated malfunctioning of your vision. Each scene serves one of two purposes: for Jimmy to provide exposition or to create the effect that you have reached a new action-packed “level” of the story.

Naishuller, whose only other directing credit is a music video for his Russian indie Band Biting Elbows, seems to have made this film for a target audience more specific than the 18-35 year-old male demographic. He aims, shoots and hits a bullseye right in the hearts of video game lovers everywhere, throwing gaming references and obvious tropes left and right (and sometimes vertically or upside down). Naishuller’s target audience will feel right at home throughout the entire ride.

From a cinematic perspective, “Hardcore Henry” is garbage. The story is ludicrous, the cinematography leaves your eyes dryer than dirt and the acting and dialogue is so over-the-top it would make Tommy Wiseau (writer, director and star of the famously reviled “The Room”) proud. However, that is also part of its charm. I also applaud Naishuller for creating multiple sequences left me in awe, wondering how they were achieved. It is far from a groundbreaking cinematic achievement, not counting its technical achievements, but it excels in turning its own weaknesses into strengths by never taking itself seriously. Ever.

Congratulations, Henry. You win.

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment Your navigator, Jimmy, (Sharlto Copley) meets you for the first time in "Hardcore Henry"
Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment
Your navigator, Jimmy, (Sharlto Copley) meets you for the first time in “Hardcore Henry”

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[ezcol_1half_end]Real Three Stars

Devin King | News Editor
Friday, April 8; 11 a.m.

The best part about reviewing “Hardcore Henry” is that I now get to talk about my favorite art form, video games. This is because “Hardcore Henry” is a film full of themes and references that pertain to video games. It may not have the best design in terms of narration and sophistication, but I admire first-time Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller’s double-downing on its video game focus, which is something I greatly enjoy.

“Hardcore Henry” is a film that is shot entirely in first-person. You never see the titular character, who is uncredited, as the film takes place entirely from his literal point of view. Henry himself cannot speak, so in sort of a way, Henry is essentially the audience.

The story starts out with Henry waking up in a laboratory. It is shown that he is part of some secret Russian experiment, where many of his biological features have been replaced by cybernetic enhancements. He breaks lose, thanks to his new physical capabilities, however, the evil Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), captures and holds Henry’s wife, Estelle, (Haley Bennett) captive. Henry then sets out to rescues his wife and seek revenge on Akan.

A first-person viewpoint is normally something that is associated with video games, most notably with first-person shooters, but this is not where the film’s connection with video games stops. There are countless thematic and references that are commonly associated with video games, such as segments involving parkour and building climbing, a damsel in distress, a first-person sniper sequence, a character solely dedicated to navigate Henry, over sexualized women, an over-the-top villain (Akan) and an obscene amount of exhibition that is normally found in video game plots. All of these can be found in popular modern action video game series, such as “Uncharted,” “Assassin’s Creed” and “Far Cry.”

On paper, all of these video game themes seem to have a negative impact on the film. However, it is more of a double-edged sword.  These traits make the film seem more shallow and basic, but for me, they brought me waves of nostalgia. A lot of these themes also pledge modern games but a lot of these games are still enjoyable in their own right, which is why I had a smile on my face for the majority of the 96 minute runtime.

If it was not obvious already, “Hardcore Henry” has a very weak story. It is full of action movie clichés and one-trait characters. This is likely due to the fact that the film has such strong ties to modern video games, as this is something that many games struggle with. However, it is clear that “Hardcore Henry” is not out to make a deep, philosophical message, so it is easier to forgive this movie than most.

As for something shot entirely in first-person, I personally did not have much trouble keeping up with the action or succumbed to motion sickness, but many other people at my screening did. There are many fast paced camera movements, so those that are not used to seeing so much quick action and shaky cinematography in first-person might get motion sickness. As for the visuals, the multiple one-take action scenes are absolute eye-candy and are, without a doubt, the best part of the film.

Speaking of aesthetics, composer Darya Charusha’s score is very energizing and reminds me of a lot of video game soundtracks that I enjoy listening to.

As with its shallow plot, the film also has shallow characters. Everyone essentially has one quirk about them and that is about it. This also leads to very few noteworthy performances. The best performance is Sharlto Copley, who plays the navigation character Jimmy and gives a really well-rounded performance for what he is given.

“Hardcore Henry” is definitely a film I would not recommend for a general audience, as its shallow plot and first-person visuals may be too much for some to handle. However, as a gamer, I do have to admire the amount of video game themes that remind me of all the happy times I have spent with a controller in my hand.

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