Imagine this: You wake up on a table in what appears to be a lab. Your left arm and leg are missing, but you don’t know why because you can’t remember who or where you are or what’s happened.
There’s the pretty blonde in a lab coat who keeps calling you Henry, but who’s she? She replaces your missing limbs with prosthetics and then says she’s your wife. You search your memory for some scrap of recognition, but there’s nothing there.
She says you have amnesia from a traumatic accident, which makes sense, but just as you’re beginning to relax, a trench coat wearing thug shows up with a group of gun-toting mercenaries. Who are these guys, and why are they there? Moments later, all hell breaks loose when the thug grabs your wife and his henchmen set their sights on you...
The preceding paragraph describes the first few minutes of the sci-fi action thriller “Hardcore Henry.” Filmed entirely from a first-person perspective using GoPro cameras strapped to the faces of the actors who played Henry, it follows the protagonist as he punches, kicks, stabs, shoots, and blows up everyone and everything that stands between him and his wife. You see what Henry sees and you hear what he hears, giving you a viewpoint never before afforded an audience for an entire film.
If you’ve played or even seen a first-person shooter video game, you’ll recognize the aesthetic writer and director Ilya Naishuller was striving to achieve. But he didn’t want to replicate something you can do at home on an Xbox or PlayStation; rather, he wanted to immerse you within the experience of the central character in a movie. While this approach lent itself to some wild, balls-out action, it also forced Naishuller to take a unique approach to the narrative.
Instead of doling out the story through expository dialogue, Naishuller weaves the plot into the action. Henry can’t speak, so he has to figure out what’s going on by watching the actions of others, observing his surroundings, and listening to snippets of dialogue. As the viewers, we don’t know any more than he does, so when the pretty blonde says she’s his wife, we don’t know if he can trust her, and when he escapes the blimp in which the opening scene takes place and crashes onto a Moscow highway, all he knows to do is run, and that’s all we want him to do.
Naishuller didn’t leave Henry completely on his own; he gave him help in the form of Jimmy, a man who keeps getting killed and then reappearing in a different outfit. Whether he’s a bum, a soldier, or a hippie – to name a few – Jimmy’s purpose in the story is to give Henry bits of information that keep him alive and propel things forward.
Some critics have nicked “Hardcore Henry” for having a thin story, but I think Naishuller struck the perfect balance between action and narrative. If the story were meatier, it might have become convoluted or hard to follow. As it is, I was able to keep up with what was going on and felt satisfied when the movie was over. While the film is thin on character development, how well can you get to know the people around you when most of them are trying to kill you?
That leaves the action, which is why you should see “Hardcore Henry” in the first place. Not only did Naishuller and team pull off a few truly jaw-dropping stunts (dropping a grenade through the sunroof of a van and then being blown off the vehicle and onto a motorcycle comes to mind), even the movie’s more routine scenes rival anything I’ve seen in a traditionally shot film in terms of sheer energy and mayhem. I don’t want to oversell the action, as it can be nauseating at times, and the GoPro video lacks the warmth and texture of film or more expensive digital equipment, but I often found myself leaning forward in my seat and looking forward to the next stunt.
Beyond that, Naishuller pushes the boundaries of the R rating with several highly creative and gory kills. If any part of you retches at the sight of viscera, avoid seeing “Hardcore Henry.”
With “Hardcore Henry,” Naishuller takes a visual gimmick and sustains it brilliantly for 96 minutes. While the film isn’t as tightly made as “Mad Max: Fury Road” or “The Raid,” it was approached with the same blend of creativity and cinematic anarchy, and as a result is very entertaining. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.
Three stars out of four. Rated R for violence, language, sexual content, nudity, and drug use.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.