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SXSW Review: Hardcore Henry

SXSWHardcore Henry is not necessarily a bad film, but it never really makes that leap from being just kind of good. To its credit, it delivers on being a visceral, over-the-top, action-fest shot entirely from the first-person perspective of its main character, Henry. And it should be noted that the action scenes have inventiveness and plenty of gory violence. The filmgoing experience is intense and the audience barely gets many moments to catch its breath before being thrown into the next running, shooting, parkour, fist-fighting, grenade-tossing rush away from or through the endless bad guys. While Hardcore Henry gets a lot right with its action and even its comedy, mostly coming from a perfectly used Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium), at some point the initially shocking and immersive first-person camera, the blaring rock/punk soundtrack, and the underwhelming story start to slip into the viewer’s mind and distract somewhat from the ridiculous eye-bath of violence and explosions.

Hardcore Henry will inevitably, probably too frequently, be described as being like a video game. So let’s get through that obligatory comparison right away. Yes. Hardcore Henry is just like a first-person video game: A silent protagonist, with technologically advanced cybernetic parts wakes up from some kind of comma with very little memory of his past and is quickly confronted by a significantly more powerful and well-guarded evil guy who steals the girl. This hero is then thrown head-first into chases, and increasingly more serious gunplay, gaining power-ups and meeting contacts who give more information about his history along the way until the final confrontation with the big boss… on the roof of a super-high tower… at night… with twists! It is clearly intended to invoke video-gamish tropes and visuals and it would be incredibly surprising if the director, Ilya Naishuller, wasn’t himself a huge gamer.
HH1

Noting that Hardcore Henry is like a video game, though, doesn’t really say anything about what makes it a film. And once the game-like sheen wears off within the first 45 minutes or so, it is up to the characters on the screen to prove that there is more than just a rush of action-film and video game ideas being reused to make something worth being projected onto the screen. There are ways in which this movie succeeds in doing that. As previously mentioned, Sharlto Copley, who plays no less than 20 different versions of the same character, Jimmy, steals pretty much every scene he is in. Whether Jimmy is a serious and business-like bringer of gadgets, a coke-fueled stripclub owner, or a WWII-style British general, Copley is hamming it up gloriously and providing a great level of levity to frequently help ease the viewer out of the adrenaline rush that is the majority of the film. Another standout is the stunt-work, particularly from the person who had to strap a camera-rig to his head and jump off or ascend the outside of buildings.

Hardcore Henry is fast, shiny, and gritty. It embraces its location, Russia, by having Henry dodge bullets in the streets, fight bad guys in clubs, and briefly relax in forests and abandoned buildings. There are motorcycle chases, car chases, foot chases, gun fights, fist fights, sword fights, and a little bit of telekinesis for good measure. The film isn’t lacking in action and if a string of fun action scenes are all you are looking for, Hardcore Henry, won’t disappoint there. However, unlike one of the most recent “big string of fun action scenes” type films, Mad Max: Fury Road, this movie is missing some of the major elements that make that one work so well. The main character’s personal motivation is somewhat murky; beyond “Get the girl, kill the baddies,” Henry never really stops to determine why he fights. The secondary and tertiary characters are quite flimsy, only revealing even some minute details about themselves in the third act, which is far too late to care about them. And, possibly one of the biggest problems is that Henry never seems like he is in any real danger.

Sure, he gets into battles, he gets shot at, he even gets shot a few times, his battery starts to run low, he falls out of buildings and helicopters only to get right back up, and he never needs to rest at all. Once it is realized that he is just going to escape every situation, it then doesn’t necessarily come down to the variety of methods he will use to keep going to keep the viewer invested, because most of the time the answer is just “shoot a lot of bullets and keep moving forward.” While this knowledge that the main character is pretty invincible could allow for one to just sit back and be entertained by the thrills, what it does instead is remove any of the stakes from the film and force the viewer to start focusing on body-count and how Sharlto Copley will appear next. So, in a sense, more like a video game with god-mode turned on, where the only real fun is finding out how the thing is going to end, and then never really needing to play again.

HH2

Hardcore Henry, despite its pretty damning failings, is still a fun movie to see in theaters. Grab some friends, turn off your brain, and be pulled along for the ride. It likely won’t hold up to multiple viewings and it likely won’t be the start of a first-person film trend. The camera work just doesn’t engage enough for the entirety of the film. If one wants something similar, but in a more tolerable dose, a music video directed by Naishuller for his band’s song “Bad Motherf******,” which served as a sort of proof-of-concept for this film is just the right amount of running, shooting, first-person action one might need.

HH 3

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I like to be challenged to think about things, so I studied Philosophy in college. Now I am paying for it.

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