Hardcore Henry more video game than movie, damn good video game

Photos courtesy STX Entertainment.

Most of the time when a movie is sold around a new or unestablished camera gimmick, the entire movie is formed around that gimmick. But Hardcore Henry is a little more, well, hardcore.

The movie puts viewers in the perspective of Henry (more than a dozen cameramen and stuntmen, including director Ilya Naishuller), a cybernetically reconstructed super soldier with a wiped memory. Henry awakens to Estelle (Hayley Bennett) putting the left side of his body together and telling him she’s his wife, but the scene is quickly interrupted by Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), a telekinetic warlord who funded Estelle’s work only so she could build him a cyborg army to rule the world. Henry escapes, but Estelle is captured. Aided and directed by the apparently immortal Jimmy (Sharlto Copely), Henry all but tears down the Russian backwater he finds himself in to rescue her.

Hardcore Henry was shot almost exclusively with a GoPro Hero 3 that Naishuller rigged to a mask, and the story is told completely in second person. You, the viewer, are the main character. Though movies will sometimes dabble in the second person perspective, particularly in cases where a movie is trying to make commentary on the audience, it’s a very tricky thing to do and it instantly sets this film apart. Hardcore Henry is a bold experiment with some remarkably odd results. A lot of the problems you would expect from a movie shot this way are absent — surprisingly, there aren’t a ton of motion sickness issues here, and the ostentatious, tells-you-how-to-feel vibe second person narratives can fall into is avoided. It’s actually strikingly similar to conventional action movies — it turns into a video game, which is something a lot of movies do, and it’s successful for the same reasons good action movies are successful.

Everybody saying this movie is in first person needs to open a fucking literature textbook. In first person, the story is about the person telling it and the main character is “I.” Fight Club is in first person. Sin City is in first person. Many movies cut into first person for perspective shots. Hardcore Henry is in second person. The main character is “you.” It’s an extremely difficult perspective to tell a story from, and the movie does a great job of it.

Hardcore Henry is propped up by a brilliant story with great characters. Copely is delightful and completely intelligible, two things I never thought I’d say, as the eclectic, helpful but mysterious Jimmy. Akan is a terrific character. Where Henry is an ethically upstanding physical juggernaut who pays for every inch of ground he covers in flesh, Akan is a diabolical megalomaniac rapist who uses his powers to kill with neither conscience nor effort. Henry spends 96 frantic minutes trying to get his hands on the guy and he kills 20 people just to get within arm’s reach, and then Akan flings him back with a flick of the wrist, tilts his head back and laughs. And because of the second person perspective, it all happens directly to the viewer.

They’ve even got a crude but effective masculinity theme. Tim Roth’s heavily advertised role is a mere cameo as Henry’s father, coming to him as a child after being accosted by three bullies. “You little pussy,” says the father, before demanding Henry stand up for himself. The word “pussy” becomes a motif — Henry is at one point called “half-machine, half-pussy” by an opponent — that recalls this conflict, and turns the film into Henry’s entire life story. He’s fighting against Akan, a bully who can beat Henry up himself or through sheer numbers who stole his wife, but he’s also fighting against that 10-year-old bully who beat Henry up by himself but brought two accomplices anyway who stole his toy all those years ago.

This story with these characters and motifs would have made for a great, light-hearted romp in a traditionally shot movie or video game, and it’s ultimately why Hardcore Henry succeeds. As much as the camera and perspective alters and defines the movie, this story would have been great from any angle.

Tim Roth’s part in this movie is how cameos should be done. He’s only onscreen for a few seconds, but plays a very important role in Henry’s development and motivation. The point isn’t that he’s Tim Roth, it’s that he’s Henry’s father. The fact that he’s Tim Roth is just for fun.

As for the most common criticism of the film, that it turns into a video game, well, so do a lot of effects-heavy action movies. That’s a common criticism of Mad Max: Fury Road, for crying out loud. I’ve never viewed that as a valid complaint on its own because video games have become such capable storytelling media.  A lot of the best action genre storytelling is actually limited to video games at this point — the God of War or Halo series, for example, would make great films because of their story structure as much as their action — and that kind of efficient storytelling that can make room for crazy, elaborate action scenes is something that needs to make its way back into cinema.

That said, the video game comparison is where the second person perspective is really felt — the action in Hardcore Henry looks like a first-person shooter game. As the film goes on and becomes more action-dense, it starts to explore the commonalities between video game design and visual storytelling in general, and it’s a great movie to watch if you want to get into video game design. There’s an inherent tension in this movie between the viewer and Henry — they’re supposedly one and the same, but since we can’t pick up a controller and play, the movie has to be extra clear about what’s going on in action scenes and Henry’s thought processes going through them, and it does a great job. It has an easier time in the first person shooter scenes than in the martial arts scenes for obvious reasons, but even those are done remarkably well.

See this movie. See it for the action and the brilliant, subtle storytelling, or see it because it’s a unique experience. The critical reaction has been mixed, so it may never be recreated.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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