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Hardcore Henry
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by Jay Seaver

"First-person-film needs a point of view."
2 stars

Pay attention through the credits of first-person action movie "Hardcore Henry", and there will be one or two things that mildly amuse: Three guys listed after "Additional Cameramen as Henry", and an acknowledgment that the poster for "Lady in the Lake" appears courtesy of Warner Brothers. I missed that callback to Robert Montgomery's uneven attempt to shoot a movie from the hero's point of view, but it's easy to miss stuff in this movie; it's a fast-moving mess more interested in empty violence than the actual cool stuff going on underneath.

It's clear where writer/director Ilya Naishuller's priorities are from the James Bond-style opening titles, which show various sorts of violent death in slow motion. After that, the film jumps to a secret lab, where the audience settles into the title character's point of view as his scientist wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) administers him, attaching mechanical limbs and telling him that his amnesia is, well, not normal, but expected after what he's been through. He's barely had time to get used to his cyborg upgrades - can't even get a voicebox installed - before Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), the Russian industrialist funding Estelle's research, bursts in and starts killing lab assistants with telekenisis. Henry and Estelle escape but get separated. Fortunately, help soon appears in the form of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who appears to give Henry directions and assistance in various guises, apparently shaking off any sort of catastrophic injury that comes from being around Henry and Akan's veritable army of goons.

In retrospect, Naishuller deserves a bit of credit in that what should be a really obvious giveaway in the first ten minutes or so more or less goes unnoticed as the action charges forward. It does raise the question of whether it's better to be frustrated that the characters are missing something right in front of their faces or to think that things are silly and random - for a place that seems a lot like contemporary Moscow, you'd think Akan being some sort of Dark Jedi and there being multiple people with internal batteries running around would be treated as odd, not to mention the utter lack of useful police presence - and then having things collapse toward the end. It's a thoroughly dumb movie, but sort of manages to camouflage just how dumb and in which manner for longer than you'd expect.

Near-constant action can cover that up, and this movie certainly has that, but it's frustrating in some ways. There is obviously some amazing stunt/effects work going on, especially when Naishuller takes advantage of the film ideally being one continuous shot (and when it's not, the stuttering is annoying). The trouble is, it soon becomes clear that the middle of the action is often not the best vantage point to appreciate it; cool stuff is too often happening in the margins, the picture jumps around, and there's no sense of back-and-forth in a lot of the fights, and Henry being a deliberately blank slate means that when the fights frequently get bloody, there's no reaction, just a blank and silent move to the next villain. Blasted shame, because some of the big action scenes are great in conception and choreographed well, just not involving.

The other shame is that there's some interesting stuff in here that gets shoved off to the side with Henry front and center. For all that putting the audience in Henry's feet akin to a first-person shooter is the point of the film, watching Sharlto Copley do a bunch of different variations on Jimmy is a much more interesting and entertaining form of wish fulfillment, and Copley chewing the scenery, even in a bit that goes on way too long, is probably the most entertaining thing the movie's got. There's also more interesting things to be done with Estelle than the film bothers with, though Haley Bennett does well when given a scene. Danila Kozlovsky never really makes Akan into a great villain, though, though Tim Roth does well enough when he makes a flashback cameo.

Every time "Hardcore Henry" threatens to become an interesting sci-fi movie, though, it retreats, with violence that is gruesome but never surprising or an ironically poppy soundtrack that never makes the leap into being actual satire or even celebration of how much fun this sort of over-the-top fantasy violence can be. I'm curious as heck to see what Naishuller does next; he's clearly got some skills when it comes to moving things around but needs to needs to do something a bit more interesting with them.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29563&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/10/16 17:58:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/31/20 morris campbell not bad but take some motionsickness pills 1st 4 stars
4/23/18 Mark Louis Baumgart 20 minutes in I had a f**king migraine. Total fail! 1 stars
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