Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Hardcore Henry": review


According to the Wikipedia trivia for this movie, the eponymous Henry in the brutal, non-stop actioner "Hardcore Henry" was played by around ten different actors. The only other major stars are Sharlto Copley ("District 9," "Elysium," etc.) as a series of "Jimmy"s, Danila Kozlovsky as the villain Akan, and Haley Bennett as Estelle, Henry's maybe-wife. The movie most resembles a first-person-shooter (FPS) video game in its speed, intensity, and insistence on a Henry's-eye-view of all the action. Henry is literally a point-of-view character in this film—the only such character.

As the film begins, Henry wakes up in a lab, two of his limbs missing. The female scientist attending him says she's an expert on memory, and that she understands Henry may be confused as he remembers almost nothing previous to waking up. She calls herself Estelle and claims to be Henry's wife. Henry is also unable to speak; it turns out that he was involved in some sort of disaster—a firefight, an explosion, or something—that ripped away body parts and left him barely alive, hence both the memory loss and the muteness. Henry receives a robotic arm and leg, along with artificial skin for the arm, but doesn't have time to receive his speech module before the lab is attacked by the evil, telekinesis-using Akan (apparently a mutant; his telekinetic ability is never explained). Henry and Estelle manage to escape Akan, but Henry discovers that the lab is actually aboard an airship, so the only way down to the ground is an escape pod. He and Estelle climb aboard the last remaining pod, crash-landing on the streets of Moscow. Akan's goons quickly find Henry, who manages to escape, but he does so without Estelle, who is captured by the goons.

From this point on, the film is about Henry's attempt to figure out who and what he is and to recover Estelle while avoiding Akan's minions. Henry receives help from a series of people who are all called "Jimmy" (and all played by Sharlto Copley). Each Jimmy has a distinct look and personality, a fact that itself becomes a clue as to what larger plot is afoot. Along the way, Henry figures out that he's made for combat: he's an expert at hand-to-hand fighting and can use any weapon that comes into his possession. Henry's first task is to find a power cell so that he doesn't deactivate/die within the next thirty minutes. This proves to be a grisly task, as Henry has to dig into another man's chest cavity (and into his own) to retrieve and install the cell. From then on, it's a chase, with Akan's minions ever in hot pursuit.

Questions loom for Henry: who is Akan, and why does he want Henry dead? What is Akan's larger purpose? Who is Estelle, really? Who are these Jimmys who keep appearing in rapid succession, and why are they trying to help Henry? Most important: who is Henry himself?

"Hardcore Henry" was filmed almost entirely with GoPro cameras—the tiny, lightweight ones that you strap to your head to record a first-person perspective while skiing (watch this amazing video) or performing other stunts. The technique works marvelously for most of the film, but the frenetic nature of the film's action sequences left me feeling numb by the beginning of the third reel. And despite the intensity of the first-person action, which includes confusing gunfights and some dizzying parkour stunts, there was an overall lack of suspense: as a viewer, I knew that Henry would have to survive to the end of the film because the only perspective we have on anything is Henry's. That's a bit ironic when you think about it: FPS-style filming is supposed to ramp up the intensity, but instead ends up leaving the viewer reassured that nothing seriously bad will ever happen to the protagonist.

The story does a good job of slowly expanding our knowledge of Henry's world. Friendly characters appear (Sharlto Copley shows off his versatility and his comic chops in playing a series of different characters), leave a little bit of tantalizing information, then get killed off. The action is comically over-the-top, which suits me fine. As I get older, I prefer to have a story accompany the action, but I'll still indulge in some good, stupid fun now and then. I enjoyed the parkour scenes, which did add some high-wire-ish tension even if they couldn't help with the larger narrative problem mentioned above. By the end of the movie, not all of our questions have been answered, but most of them have.

The movie is directed by Ilya Naishuller, a Russian who is part of the new wave of cartoonish, CGI-heavy, Russian-inflected action movies spearheaded by the likes of Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, who produced this film (Bekmambetov, who is as unsubtle as Joel Schumacher, made such films as "Day Watch" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"). There's a definite sense that the Russians are trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood, and this isn't necessarily a good thing. "Hardcore Henry" provides enough story and humor to remain interesting for the duration of its running time, but it is an exhausting experience, and the final major action sequence is disappointingly repetitive.

The movie currently has a 51 over at, but I hear it got raves in Russia, where it enjoys a 78% approval. All in all, I'd call the film entertaining, but even though it's already short at 96 minutes, it could probably stand to shave some of those action sequences down a bit to make the film even leaner and meaner.

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