Mar 19, 2020
Hardcore Henry (2016): You’ll love it, and never want to watch it again
Hardcore Henry, the new first-person action film based on aping such video game classics as Duke Nukem and Modern Warfare, barely qualifies as a movie. It is an endurance test. It is something drunk frat boys would inflict upon unsuspecting freshmen. It has all the vertigo-inducing effects of The Walk, and unlike that unfairly passed-over gem, this movie actually will make you want to vomit. This is not a movie you should watch on a full stomach. This is not a movie you should watch while wearing constricting clothing. If this movie lived next door to you, your lawn would die.
I love it!
I also kind of never want to see it again.
It probably won’t come as any surprise to long-time Boothers, but Mr. Mendo loves him some transgressive art. I’ve already written on this site of my love for Insane Clown Posse and Freddy Got Fingered, and while I may not be the only staffer here who knows of the band Vomit Spawn, I guaran-damn-tee you they couldn’t tell you what album “Puskunt” was on. A movie that breaks down the basic mechanics of film making in order to assault the senses of its audience, just because, should be right up my alley. And it is. Mostly.
Directed by first-timer Ilya Naishuller and produced by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov, Hardcore Henry is the movie that the Doom adaptation sold itself as, only it actually commits to its premise. Told entirely in first-person, à la 1947’s Lady in the Lake (which gets a pretty cheeky shout-out midway through the film), the story follows Henry, a newly risen from the dead cyborg on the run from an evil Russian CEO who’s kidnapped his wife.
Why can’t Henry just kick his ass, being a cyborg and all? Well, because the bad guy has psychic powers, obviously.
Henry must kung-fu his way through the standard army of goons to save the day, aided by Sharlto Copley as a body-hopping mad scientist who alternatively wants to help or kill Henry, depending on whatever the scene is.
It’s kind of a weird movie.
Now, I’ve never really been much of a shooter fan. I know a lot of my fellow veterans would sell their kidneys if it meant a new Call of Duty game would come out that much earlier each year, but to me they always just felt like work. When I worked at Wendy’s, I didn’t rush home and play Burger Time, if you get my point. I was on board to see some Call of Duty spoofing, which gets a little bit on the nose when Copley (playing, for the moment, a British soldier) literally gives Henry a tutorial. (Though, why this scene is at the end of the film rather than the beginning is a mystery for the ages.)
In aping the logic of a video game genre where story is less important than getting the scratches on a gun barrel right, I can forgive a lot of the flaws with the film’s plot, though, since a movie doesn’t get DLC, there are a couple of dangling story threads I’m not in a hurry to ignore. There’s a standard twist where someone we thought was a good guy turns out to be evil that only seems like a well-written turn in a game because games, by necessity, have pretty terrible writing; I might have been upset by it, but the way the thread is concluded is so refreshingly blunt and cold-blooded, it actually becomes cathartic.
Not that any of that matters in the big picture, of course. Hardcore Henry is what we artistic types refer to as a “dancing bear”: its objective quality is secondary to the fact that it exists at all. While I sincerely doubt that the film will spawn many imitators (making your audience want to run screaming from the theater is generally not a sound business decision), I’m glad this movie exists, not only because it shows how far we’ve come technologically (i.e., it’s now possible to make a compelling action film with amazing camera tricks for relatively no money), but also because it does what great transgressive art should do: shock the audience out of complacency.
When I left the theater, I was seized by the twin desires to tell everyone how good this movie is, and to track down every copy of the film and smash them with a hammer.
That said, this movie doesn’t work. At all.
I say this because films like V/H/S 2 and The ABCs of Death were able to pull off first-person genre mini-classics without nearly so many out-of-focus shots, and while Hardcore Henry was deliberately trying to hurt my eyes, it did its job a little too well. Maybe it was a budgetary thing, but if the filmmakers wanted this to look like a video game, they should have remembered that games aren’t so blurry all the damn time.
So, I’m put in an awkward position. The movie appealed to the film buff in me. But as a critic, I can’t in good conscience tell you anything better than see it once, and never speak of it again.