Best I can tell, Hardcore Henry was made by transcribing a hyperactive, Call of Duty-obsessed tween’s incoherent ramblings after a Robitussin-induced fever dream. The director/screenwriter, Ilya Naishuller, must have sat next to the kid’s bed, frantically scribbling the poor dehydrated child’s words: “I’m a cyborg. A telekinetic, Russian man with creepy eyes steals my girlfriend. A strange man tries to help me but keeps dying. I shoot like a bajillion dudes. Explosions. Boobs.”
The entire movie plays out from the perspective of a cyborg named Henry. He never speaks, because as his voice is being installed the bad guy busts in kidnaps his wife. This starts Henry on a mission to save her. Along the way Henry keeps running into a man named Jimmy, played by Sharlto Copley of District 9. He tries to help Henry, but is summarily murdered, only to pop up again down the road, when the process begins again. The movie continues in this fashion until the climactic final fight during which Henry has to fight dozens of other cyborgs and the Big Bad Telekinetic Russian.
Hardcore Henry caught the internet’s attention because of the first-person point-of-view employed throughout the film. The perspective is an interesting idea, but the execution felt gimmicky. At its best moments it put the audience in the perspective of an incredibly efficient murderer, clearing rooms of men with the rushed detachment of a child popping bubbles. At its worst, the movie felt like watching someone else play a video game: they are always looking somewhere other than where you would like them to, they don’t react the way you want them to, and they violently swing the camera back and forth like they are thumb-wrestling the controller.
Speaking to the last point, there were several times through the course of the movie that I literally had motion sickness. Add to that the relentless, mind-numbing music of the film and the jarring cuts during action scenes, and the final result felt less like I experienced the movie and more like I was assaulted by it. About two thirds of the way in, Hardcore Henry has its first quiet moment, and I felt a real sense of physical and mental relief. I left the theater wondering if the jittering, disoriented feeling I had buzzing through my skull was some sort of sudden onset epilepsy. Hardcore Henry was overwhelming. It is the film equivalent of snorting a pixie stick while listening to amateur dubstep and watching the Power Rangers on fast forward.
I’m giving Hardcore Henry a hard time, and rightfully so, but the film had redeeming aspects. The story was imaginative and exciting, if incoherent. At times the visuals were beautiful, when the camera lingered on something long enough for it to be registered. Henry’s parkour was impressive, but the first-person POV seemed to be a hindrance to these scenes. The most entertaining aspect of the film for me, by far, was Sharlto Copley. Every time he appeared on screen he was doing something strange, interesting and magnetic. After watching Hardcore Henry I think I would be more entertained just watching Copley’s character reel for the same running time as the film.
I wonder if everyone who reaches a certain age at some point sees a piece of pop culture that makes them think, “This is no longer for me.” This may not be that piece of media for me, but it is certainly a harbinger of its coming. Watching Hardcore Henry, I stared into the face of my own approaching cultural irrelevance. Very soon, when I hear the phrase, “Appeal to a younger audience,” they will not be thinking about how to appeal to me. That is what Hardcore Henry was to me, a lot of sound and fury, which only caused to remind me of time forever trudging onward and our inevitable demise.