‘Hardcore Henry’ A Good Idea Stretched Too Thin (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=3.00]

Several years back, the internet was collectively mesmerized by the remarkable music video to the unremarkable band Biting Elbows’ unremarkable song “Bad Motherfucker”. Shot entirely in the first person, the video played out like a five-minute, action/sci-fi short, where an unseen protagonist, largely implied to be the viewer, kicked all the ass while embarking on a series of parkour stunts across buildings and landscapes. It was an interesting and novel approach to the action genre, breathing a healthy dose of much needed fresh air into familiar and tired tropes and scenarios.

Of course, as it does with everything it gets its hands on, the internet took a good idea and encouraged it too far. The plethora of comments along the lines of “I’d watch this movie” convinced the video’s visionary director, Ilya Naishuller, to turn to crowd funding, quickly turning a five-minute gimmick into a heavily anticipated and discussed full length motion picture. The result, Hardcore Henry, is a powerful and poignant study of the dangers of taking a good idea to the point of complete and utter ruination.

Never have I been so bored by a movie so filled with action. The movie’s weak premise flails desperately as it pursues any semblance of meaning or worth outside of its cinematically novel gimmick. Where Naishuller’s music video was interesting and cool, Hardcore Henry falters as it bravely wades farther and farther into the shallow waters of tedium and nonsense. The movie takes little time for its gimmick—really, its entire selling point—to wear thin, which will hopefully serve as a reminder to all creators that the internet is so rarely correct in what it deems to be a good idea.

The unseen Henry, played by multiple stuntmen, awakes in a lab with no memory and no voice. A woman proclaiming to be his wife (Haley Bennett) informs him that he was recently murdered by a vicious psychopath, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) who has turned his sights on her and her work in order to create an army of augmented, dead soldiers like Henry himself. In short order, Akan kidnaps his wife, sending Henry on a rampage to find her. Along the way, he’s assisted by a mysterious master of disguise, Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) who purports to know the hidden secrets of Henry’s current existence and Akan’s master plans.

If it sounds generic, it’s because it is. But generic is never a problem with action movies, and done correctly even the tritest of narratives can serve as a platform for high octane adventure that pushes the limits of fight choreography and stunts. To an extent, Hardcore Henry does just this, but it’s never enough to be especially memorable, or even particularly cool, outside of its admittedly novel approach.

It’s in this approach that the movie fails, however. Though undoubtedly unique, the movie’s gimmick stumbles as it quickly becomes apparent that the first person camera work limits what they can actually do. Action scenes feel stunted and there are times when it’s difficult to tell just what is going on. The argument is that it would, in these instances, be difficult for Henry himself to tell what’s going on. It’s sort of a built in defense mechanism, wherein the film’s fans, and even the film itself, can deflect criticism with a flippant, “You just don’t get it.”

I would argue that there’s little to “get”. While there are moments of greatness, they’re too few and too far between to justify the film’s existence or the creative choices made by Naishuller. The film’s limited perspective necessarily limits its own ability to tell a cohesive, interesting story, and while the action is solid enough, it quickly becomes repetitive as Henry maneuvers his way through one absurd scenario to the next in his thinly explained search for vengeance.

Filmed entirely using GoPro cameras, Hardcore Henry offers little that you haven’t seen before on any number of GoPro filmed footage of skydivers or motorcyclists. In fact, there are countless numbers of these videos on YouTube that offer more extreme and nerve wracking imagery of people falling through the sky or jumping off buildings than this movie does. The novelty her is that these images exist in support of a story, though whether or not that story was ever worth telling remains up in the air.

Much of the film is merely Copley, in various dress, looking straight in the camera and mumbling nonsense. One moment he’s a badass merc, the next a homeless wanderer, and the next a coked up sex addict. Ostensibly, we’re meant to wonder how this man can be so many people, a point hammered home as multiple Copley’s show up in the same scene. It doesn’t take much thought on your behalf to figure this all out, however, and the big reveal comes off with little more than a hearty, “You don’t say” from the audience.

I will say that, as a villain, Akan is interesting, despite being little more than an amalgamated caricature of supervillains that occupy the b-list of a minor hero’s rogue’s gallery. His telekinetic powers are revealed in short order, hinting at the possibility of becoming interesting, but unfortunately the character is woefully underutilized. It would’ve been nice to see more of him, to gain more insight into his nefarious plans and powerful methods. We can’t, however, owing to the fact that we never see anything Henry doesn’t see.

Which ultimately becomes the film’s major problem. Even the interesting elements are limited in scope owing to the limited scope of the film. While I, somewhat begrudgingly, acknowledge that the movie does a decent enough job working around its limitations, it’s frustrating to watch as the movie quickly becomes another excuse to see bland fight choreography that’s only made mildly interesting by the first person perspective. It’s meant to be immersive, but is instead distracting. What Hardcore Henry forgets is that in order for a movie to be truly immersive, story must come first.

Yes, there are some good ideas laced within Hardcore Henry, and yes there are moments of interest. But never does it add up to anything substantial. Instead, it’s a tedious ride through familiar waters that doesn’t end soon enough. Naishuller clearly has a creative mind capable of interesting thoughts, but this movie is not one of them.

Hardcore Henry is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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