This movie is ridiculous, awesome, hilarious, stupidly violent, graphic as hell, brutal, ugly, and genuinely brilliant. Like Crank (the Jason Statham vehicle from a few years back) it hits the screen with the kind of pace that directors like Michael Bay just wish they could create, let alone sustain, and it barely lets up to the very end.
It’s also a movie which could not have been made before now, because it revolves around a central gimmick which is utterly dependent on a particular pop-culture development of the last twenty years: the first-person shooter computer game. And it’s that gimmick which makes this film more than simply silly fun: it’s genuinely fascinating to watch.
Directed by Ilya Naishuller, this Russian flick draws on cyberpunk and more traditional science fiction tropes to provide a skeletal plotline for what is, quite simply, a performance of a first-person shooter. The protagonist Henry never appears directly in the camera view. The entire thing was shot in first person using Go-Pro cameras and a special “adventure mask”, and as a result the footage is ludicrously jumpy, blurry, choppy — and convincingly game-like.
The manner in which the movie draws from, builds on and references the popular gaming genre is both entertaining and deeply interesting. I would argue that without such games saturating our modern culture, it would be nigh-impossible for filmgoers to embed themselves in this film. The first-person viewpoint has been used before, of course: the Bogart vehicle Dark Passage called on this idea back in 1947, but viewers reacted rather negatively to the experience. But by utilizing this familiar gaming vision and incorporating many other aspects of popular FPS games into the storytelling, Naishuller takes advantage of our existing conditioning to help us suppress disbelief and simply sit back to enjoy a ludicrously explosive ride.
Of course, if the FPS gimmick was the only thing going for the film it would fall rather flat – so naturally, there’s a storyline. It’s a cheesy gaming-type storyline, sure, with a build-up to the necessary Boss Fight, but it was interesting enough to keep my attention. Particularly nifty was Sharlto Copley as the character “Jimmy”. Saying much about the character would definitely be in Deep Spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say this: Copley knows how to chew the scenery, and the story that unfolds within this film gives him the perfect excuse to let fly with some of his ripest over-the-top antics. There’s even a song-and-dance number near the middle of the film; easily the strangest and most ludicrous since Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein performed “Putting On The Ritz”. Seriously: that scene alone is worth the effort of picking up this film.
Now, understand me: this is not Art Cinema by any means, but it is definitely smart as hell. It is remarkably effective at recreating the incredibly shallow world of the FPS game, in which most on-screen characters exist only to be brutally killed by the player’s avatar. The film-makers have tremendous fun with that, taking the already extreme world of FPS violence to new and ever more ludicrously explosive and gory realms. But if you recognise that the movie falls somewhere between parody and homage, it is entirely possible to have a really tremendous time watching the mayhem. And I, for one, will certainly watch Hardcore Henry again if only to meditate on the relationship between the film, the games it references, and the culture which created both.
Oh all right: I will also be laughing at the body count and cheering the more stupidly violent stunts…