Hardcore Henry

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 8, 2016

'Hardcore Henry'
'Hardcore Henry'  (Source:STX Productions, LLC)

The line between movies and video games has been thinning and wavering for years now, instances in which thrilling cinematic sequences seem purposely designed to serve as outtakes from related games have become practically ubiquitous, especially in the action and sci-fi genres.

With that in mind, it's not a surprise that there's finally a movie that for all intents is a video game. "Hardcore Henry" is a live-action First Person Shooter adventure, complete with stunning action sequences, fireballs, gun battles, insane episodes of violence, a telekinetic bad guy, a seemingly unkillable ally, and brutal smackdowns, all of which are strung across a loosely assembled plot in which the protagonist must locate and rescue his wife. All this is seen from the point view of "Henry," and we know we're with him there behind his eyes (even when his eyes are giving different perspectives because one of them has been gouged out) because whenever we glimpse his hands and arms they are covered with distinctive tattoos.

As seen on the screen, the world Henry lives in -- if dodging an unending stream of threats to his existence can be called living -- tumbles and sways with Henry's movements, some of them (running, punching,lobbing hand grenades) voluntary and many (falling from a helicopter, being tossed over the edge of an overpass) not. The visual environment is also often optically warped to some extent, as though seen through fish-eye lenses. If Henry never seems to blink, well, that's glancingly addressed, too, when a character tells him to shut his eyes, and Henry can't comply. Evidently, Henry's is a constant gaze.

This sort of meticulous first-person experience has been done before in movies, but to underscore a point. When we see it done in "The Butterfly and the Diving Bell," it's to drive home that the main character suffers from the medically mysterious "locked in" syndrome, able to see and hear but not move. When it's used in Kathryn Bigelow's film "Strange Days," it's used to illustrate a futuristic technology that records lived experience for later playback. As used here, the first-person perspective is continuous (with occasional ellipses and jumps in time to keep signs moving along), and it's the only game in town; we never cut to any other vantage, and aside from shadows and vague reflections we only see Henry's face once, when he's staring into a shard of mirror, and even then the view is incomplete.

The wife in question is Estelle, and she's played by Haley Bennett. Estelle is evidently a research scientist whose specialty has something to do with reanimating dead soldiers and outfitting them with electronic limbs and other components, turning them into battle-ready cyborgs. It's not clear what's happened to Henry, but that's part of the plot, and part of the point: Henry's memories have been wiped, outside of a childhood recollection about being bullied -- first by neighborhood kids, and then by a disappointed dad (Tim Roth), who offers an emasculating insult.

Estelle's work is financed -- and then stolen -- by a Russian madman named Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) who is able to afford high-end appurtenances of villainy, such as massive airship and an army of militarized henchman, complete with vehicles, weapons, and body armor. Akan and his goons chase Henry through Moscow and environs, their reach extended by corrupt cops and the occasional flame-throwing wielding thug. Roadways, apartments building, a bordello, a forest, a secret laboratory... every locale becomes a setting for bodacious, balls-to-the-wall action. Henry's one guide and ally is an Englishman named Jimmy who appears time and time again, in a variety of guises, despite being shot down, blown up, and burned to a cinder. Jimmy seems to know what's going on, and he also has enough technical expertise to make sure that Henry keeps operating despite multiple traumas and failing batteries, but he has a disquieting tendency to dispatch Henry on oddball errands -- to kill a guy named Slick Dmitri (Andrei Dementiev), for instance, or to intercept a convoy of high-tech vans and trucks at the behest of dominatrixes with a sideline in samurai swords. More fireballs, more crazy-go-nuts stunts, more nutsack-retracting violence, some of it hilarious!

The problem -- and this characterizes the film's first half -- is that the frenzy of violent set pieces replicates the video game experience all too well, but we're not the ones in charge of the controls. You'll see things here you can't quite believe you just witnessed, but after a while the barrage of wild antics gets tedious. Who wants to watch someone else play while not being able to participate?

Things perk up once the elusive Jimmy explains enough of what's going on to make Henry's goals more understandable. It also helps that Jimmy reveals the secret behind his ability to bounce back from so many lethal misfortunes. Once Jimmy and Henry start to form a bond, the film gains characters we can care about, and the film's visual immediacy is reinforced by a degree of emotional immediacy. From here on, as Jimmy and Henry take on legions of Akan's lackeys, the film is pure fun enlivened by -- rather than dominated by -- inventive chaos.

As technically proficient as the film is, you can see occasional cheats and even moments that look like pure CGI. Henry's hands are expressive -- they are the only way we have of knowing what he's thinking or trying to express -- but once in a while they, too, look a little fake. That said, there's nothing quite like being along for the ride when Henry engages in a little parkour, leaps from one vehicle to the next in the heat of careening highway battle, or sees the head of a villain blown apart by a bullet, even as he's got the guy by the shirt collar.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.