I sit here writing a review for a stupid movie with a dumb gimmick and a shallow story. Unfortunately, I'm struck by a pretty major issue: I think this movie might actually be great.
Hardcore Henry sells itself pretty much entirely on the fact that it's shot from a 1st-person point of view in the hopes of making its adrenaline-fueled chase scenes, shoot-outs and parkour-style action set pieces feel even more visceral (hopefully while avoiding giving viewers motion sickness) in the style of popular shooter video games. Similarly, the story that drives our silent protagonist Henry through these action scenes is a revenge/rescue story as simple as you'd find in one of those aforementioned 1st-person shooters. It plays out mostly how you imagine but with some key moments that actually surprised me enough to keep me interested in what was going on.
Simple and dumb, right?
Well... not exactly -- and that's the sticking point that has me continuously rethinking this movie because I think writer/director Ilya Naishuller may have crafted this movie to communicate a lot more than a surface reading would reveal.
Hero vs. villain
Hardcore Henry quickly establishes it's setting as one that is just sci-fi enough to have cyborg technology while still familiar enough to use Russian cities as its primary shooting locations. This cyberpunk feeling is married with some other sci-fi concepts (that I won't spoil because it's one of those aforementioned surprise moments I really liked) as Henry is separated from his cyberneticist wife (Haley Bennett) by the evil Akan, a technology mogul in charge of his own paramilitary force. The evil, creepy albino Akan is played by Danila Kozlovsky who puts in a strangely magnetic performance as he chews scenery left and right, coming off as genuinely twisted and weird. In other words, he's a solid video game villain. He's a balance of enough personality to keep from being boring and enough evil to make us want to simply see him die. He also runs a corporation that gives him access to dozens of nameless, faceless thugs in identical outfits that pour out of vans ready to kill our protagonist. Yup. Video game villain.
As Henry is separated from his wife as she becomes the Princess Peach to Henry's Mario (damn you, King Koopa-Akan!), we're soon introduced to Jimmy. Jimmy is a friend and ally to Henry that proceeds to guide him through the rest of the movie like every helpful, always-there-when-you-need-him Non-Player-Character in every video game you've ever played. In fact, it's Sharlto Copley's performance as Jimmy (in various incarnations) that helps to steal the show as he is a charismatic, fun actor who matches the kinetic action that fuels the movie with his own energy in his role(s).
As Jimmy popped up in the story in different guises (as part of another bit of weirdness that kept me interested to see answered in the film), his character was also what caused me to start thinking deeper about this movie. Jimmy, in all his different personalities that all boiled down to the same guy with the same voice but with a different character stereotype splashed on him like a coat of paint, reminded me of the sort of characters you always see in the sorts of video games Hardcore Henry sought to emulate. Helpful, written to amuse or entertain as occasional comic relief in-between tense action scenes, Jimmy even alternates between providing extra firepower alongside Henry when things get tough as well as playing the role of victim during what could only be described as a video game protect/escort mission in real life (or at least as real life as a movie can be).
A trope within a trope
The revenge story of Hardcore Henry follows the tropes of any given 80's action movie as our titular hardcore protagonist fights through several different levels encountering enemies with rifles, machine-guns and even flame-throwers all-the-while using his cybernetically enhanced abilities to dole out death in entertaining fashion. As the story develops, however, we learn more about Akan's motivations and Jimmy's involvement and the movie truly starts to resemble how certain video games are not only structured but designed.
Akan's plans hint at the sort of simple driving forces that are used in video game design to propel players through an experience that makes them feel a personal connection to the narrative, events and characters there-in. This all culminates in a crazy brawl where Henry has to power-up in a way that would make Megaman or Raiden of Metal Gear Revengeance proud as he takes the power of another cyborg to boost himself in preparation for the movies "boss fight". What follows is a pretty damn well done brawl between Henry and a small army of "superior" cyborgs that takes advantage of the 1st-person view to make much of the impact of the fight feel that much more exciting and frenetic.
You spilled video game on my movie
Naturally, after the toughest minions are disposed of, Henry has to take on the final boss Akan himself and Naishuller uses this opportunity to turn the fight into a platform-puzzle that Henry has to solve before taking the fight to Akan directly. Again, it's the exact sort of thing you'd see in a video game but, in the context of the movie, it absolutely works. Truly, it's the invocation of these tropes and conventions from modern video games that makes Hardcore Henry feel like something much more than its premise and gimmick.
Of course, I'm in the perfect age category, having grown up on video games, to appreciate this sort of thing and those older folks that never played video games or stopped playing them before the advent of Golden Eye and Call of Duty and others might simply fail to understand the language the movie is speaking in. For those that do fall into the same category as me, however, I can't help but recommend this movie and I might even need to see it a second time to truly get an appreciation for what it's trying to convey. Suffice to say, I would definitely look forward to hearing what Naishuller has to say about his movie on a commentary track and probably the most glowing thing I can say about Hardcore Henry is that I would absolutely watch a sequel.
Hardcore Henry simply isn't for everyone but, for those that it speaks to, I think it has a lot to say while also being a fun action movie that plays out like a 1st-person version of Crank.