I will see a movie for a gimmick. "Found footage," reverse chronology, multiple actors playing the same character — I'm there. My holy grail is a movie that tells a good story while playing with our assumptions about how storytelling works.
So of course I had to check out Hardcore Henry, an action film told entirely in the first person, with the camera seeing only what the protagonist does. This trick has been tried before, notably in noir films such as Dark Passage and Lady in the Lake (both 1947) and sections of Strange Days (1995). But none of those directors had the flexibility afforded by head-mounted GoPro cameras.
Writer-director Ilya Naishuller does, and he uses it to the utmost. When the film's eponymous, never-seen protagonist engages in fistfights, knife fights, gun fights and vertiginous parkour maneuvers, so do we. This is not a film for people prone to motion sickness.
For those who aren't, the movie's central technique is exciting — until it all starts to blur, both literally and figuratively. The problem is that Hardcore Henry hasn't been structured like a film narrative but like a first-person-shooter video game. Naishuller's priority is delivering escalating thrills and kills, with storytelling distinctly secondary.
The plot is simplicity itself: Henry is a tough guy who wakes in a lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A woman calling herself his wife (Haley Bennett) explains that he has been maimed and resurrected with cyber-limbs. Before she can give Henry the power of speech, the sneering albino bad guy who did the maiming (Danila Kozlovsky) comes back to finish the job.
From there on, our mute hero is on the run — parachuting into Moscow, dodging goons in crowded malls, chasing the power source he needs to survive. Henry's only ally is Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a motormouth of many disguises who keeps popping up to deliver exposition, only to be repeatedly, hideously and comically killed off. He's also the film's only character with a semblance of personality.
Jimmy's apparent immortality eventually gets its own exposition, but other seemingly random elements — such as the villain's telekinetic powers — go unexplained. The film's world building is rudimentary, and no one has much in the way of motivation: Henry never stops to ponder whether he's more invested in rescuing the wife he barely knows, saving himself, or both. The script teases a few mysteries — such as the meaning of Henry's single intact memory — only to resolve them with groan-worthy predictability.
One might object that Mad Max: Fury Road managed to be a propulsive, genuinely energizing movie with a similarly weak protagonist. A few scenes in Henry do hit comparable highs — particularly an extended pedestrian chase scene where we can actually see what's going on.
But, while Fury Road was rigidly and masterfully structured by the journey on its titular highway and had at least a few characters with compelling plights, Henry quickly devolves into a purée of pulp-action clichés. First-person format doesn't impart immediacy when the action is nothing we can imagine ourselves doing. It's just another angle on the same stylized impossibilities — part stunt work, part CGI — that we see in every single superhero film.
Naishuller could have used the format in far more inventive ways, even without departing from his game-inspired aesthetic. Perhaps he could have riffed self-consciously on the cyclical repetition that interactive games require to a much greater degree than film narratives, rather than simply reproducing it.
There's a hint of cheeky self-awareness in the opening credits of Hardcore Henry, with their arty slow-motion shots of various weapons shredding human bodies. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't hit even that level of sophistication. It's like cotton candy for action fans — all sugar high, no substance.