Cinema is a uniquely visual art form, one that’s built an easily recognizable and distinct vocabulary; the shot and the reverse shot, the wide angle and the close-up. These are some of the cornerstones of a language that every film uses to tell its story, but Hardcore Henry, which unfolds entirely in a subjective first-person POV, is speaking in the language of an entirely different art form: video games. Over its exhausting 96 minutes, Hardcore Henry revels in its video game roots, pushing its wordless hero through a gauntlet of gunfights in pursuit of his kidnapped wife. As an action film, it’s fitfully effective, but as an experiment in bringing the vocabulary of video games to the big screen, Hardcore Henry definitely gets lost in translation.
The faceless, voiceless Henry (played by over a dozen stuntmen) awakens in a laboratory, where Estelle (Haley Bennett), his scientist wife, repairs his ravaged body by attaching super-strong robotic limbs. Before Henry regains his ability to speak, the nefarious Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) attacks, abducting Estelle after a thwarted escape attempt. Aided by Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a helpful ally with infinite clones of himself, Henry begins a violent quest to save his wife from Akan.
If you’re thinking Hardcore Henry sounds like a lot like the original Donkey Kong game with sprinkles of sci-fi flavoring and a heaping dose of violence, you’re not wrong. There’s little to the film outside of chaotic eruptions of combat tenuously connected by brief bursts of exposition, and the heart-sized hole at the film’s center has been filled with grenade launchers and broken bones. In classic video game fashion, many of the fight scenes here are against mask-wearing henchmen, which take the string off of the massive casualties Henry inflicts on his enemies, but it’s tougher to mask the film’s deep-seated philosophical ugliness. There’s a troublingly casual disregard for human life present throughout Hardcore Henry that would border on repulsive if the film wasn’t so shamelessly silly, though a last-minute twist regarding one of the film’s few sympathetic characters makes the film’s climax especially bitter.
Even at 96 minutes, the ideologically repellent and exhaustingly violent Hardcore Henry overstays its welcome, but there are stretches of the film that are undeniably entertaining, displaying director Ilya Naishuller’s knack for satisfying the audience even as he puts them behind the eyes of a stone-cold killer. One example of this is the fun performance from Sharlto Copley, who clearly delights in the chance to play a wide variety of characters as Jimmy, a mad scientist who has created dozens of distinct clones of himself. The film’s many, many action scenes can wear thin, especially with a reliance on gunplay that’s both disquieting thanks to current events and repetitious to the point of tedium. The hand-to-hand combat, however, is often a lot of fun, especially in the climactic showdown, which mostly eschews firearms in favor of much more visceral and creative demises for its faceless henchmen, reveling in gore so patently ridiculous that it must be seen to be believed.
The novelty of Hardcore Henry can easily be summed up by Bad Motherfucker, Naishuller’s short film that landed him financing for this debut feature, and the extremely curious would certainly be sated by the memorable finale or the visceral mid-film car chase. Hardcore Henry is single-minded to a fault, featuring an impressively inept villain whose master plan requires the extermination of his entire roster of goons and a main character whose defining traits are a forearm tattoo and a penchant for brutality. This is experimental cinema at its least cinematic, using an innovative new style for empty bloodshed and not much else, and even when the format clicks and Hardcore Henry delivers on the promise of its premise, there’s little here that qualifies this experiment as a success.
Hardcore Henry is now available on home video and VOD.